March 9, 2011
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By John Denton
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EL PASO, Texas (UCFAthletics.com) - This was the kind of déjà vu memory that the UCF Knights would just as soon forget as soon as possible.
Up 39-34 at the half - exactly as it was a month earlier against East Carolina in regular-season play - UCF once again saw a promising start collapse under an avalanche of missed shots and turnovers in the second half.
A UCF team that surged into the lead with some impressive early shooting struggled both offensively and to get stops in a 75-60 loss to East Carolina in first-round action of the Conference USA tournament.
The ninth-seeded Knights (19-11) shot 59.1 percent in the first half, but made just 28 percent of its shots after the break. The start - and the final result - was eerily similar to the Feb. 5 loss in Greenville, N.C., when UCF led by five at the break and ultimately lost 68-61.
``In the second half, you shoot 28 percent and 11 percent from the 3-point line ... you shoot those numbers it's going to be tough to finish,'' UCF coach Donnie Jones said. ``We came out and got down in the first half, but we did a good job of getting back to the flow. A lot of that was because we made some threes. The second half we just couldn't score and it's hard to go long periods without being able to score and overcome that.''
UCF survived nine turnovers and a shoving match that resulted in sophomore forward David Diakite being ejected in the first half, but the errors caught up with the Knights after the break. In the first six minutes of the second half, UCF missed three of four shots and turned the ball over five times. In that span, East Carolina (17-14) went from down five at the break to up three points.
``I just think we were coming out aggressive and we had a sense of urgency when we got down 10 points (in the first half). We wanted to get back into the game quick and we were able to make the shots that they were giving us,'' said sophomore forward Keith Clanton with 15 points. ``We just never did that in the second half.''
UCF now awaits to see its fate in a postseason tournament. The Knights, owners of seven top-100 wins this season, are a possibility for the NIT. Playing in the College Basketball Invitational is also a possibility. Both tournaments start on Tuesday, and the Knights could potentially host a game if they are invited to the CBI.
UCF started the season 14-0, including notching landmark victories against Florida and Miami to reach the national rankings for the first time in school history. An eight-game losing skid followed, but the Knights were able to salvage the season by winning five of the last seven regular-season games down the stretch.
``We did some good things this year,'' said Jones, who took over UCF's program last March. ``We had a lot of success early and we had some good wins late. We have our RPI in the 60s, there's a lot of basketball to be played and let's see where everybody falls. Hopefully there will be opportunities to play in the postseason. ... (Wednesday's loss) doesn't make your season or break your season, but we've done a lot of good things as a basketball team and hopefully that will be in consideration.''
UCF got 11 points and three 3-pointers from junior guard Isaac Sosa, but all of it came in the first half. Standout point guard Marcus Jordan had nine points and seven assists, but missed eight of his nine field goal attempts. No UCF player had more than two field goals after halftime when the Knights were outscored 41-21.
``I thought we escaped a few things in the first half because we had nine turnovers in the first half, which was too many,'' Jones said. ``We wanted to establish Keith (in the second half), but we weren't able to do that. We just couldn't stop them. When you're not scoring you obviously have to be able to get some stops, but we couldn't. We never got any easy baskets and they started making shots and that made it difficult to catch back up.''
Sparked by a momentum-turning 15-2 run and some dazzling 3-point shooting early, UCF was able to overcome a slow start and led East Carolina 39-34 at the half.
Sosa, an academic all-conference performer and one of the league's best outside shooters, hit three 3-pointers and two free throws in the first half. But East Carolina made a concerted effort to take those shots away from Sosa in the second half.
``That's the stuff that defenses have been doing all year, recognizing that I was a good shooter,'' Sosa said. ``I just have to adjust to it and take what the defense gives me.''
UCF made 13 of 22 shots in the first half, including seven of 12 shots from beyond the 3-point stripe. UCF turned the ball over six times early in the game and trailed 20-10 with 10:26 to play in the first half. But the Knights got a spark from Clanton's five quick points to begin the game-turning 15-2 run.
Clanton scored 11 points in the first half by hitting three 3-pointers and converting a nifty spinning layup off a steal.
Eighth-seeded East Carolina, which beat UCF twice during the regular season, hit six of eight 3-pointers in the first half to keep the game close. For the game, the Pirates hit 10 3-pointers and made enough plays in the second half to dash UCF's conference tournament hopes.
``I'm not sure sometimes why guys turn the ball over,'' Jones said. ``It could have been jitters, but I don't know what we'd be jittery about. Maybe it was being the first game of the tournament. But give East Carolina credit for forcing us to turn it over.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.