March 9, 2012
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By John Denton
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UCFAthletics.com) - As the cliché goes, styles make fights. And because there's such a difference in styles between that of UCF and Memphis, Friday's Conference USA semifinal showdown was a tough one for the Knights.
The gritty, share-the-ball style that UCF used to compile 22 victories this season caved in against Memphis' relentlessly athletic, above-the-rim, up-tempo attack. Every attempt UCF made to stay in the game was countered by Memphis runs, and the final result was an 83-52 loss for the Knights in semifinal action of the C-USA tourney.
``I just feel like we didn't come to play,'' said Keith Clanton, UCF's first-team all-conference forward who had just five points and one rebound in 26 minutes. ``We played their style when we played (in Orlando on Jan. 18), but both times we came up here we had no energy.''
The disappointing finish marred UCF's first-ever run to the semifinals of the C-USA Tournament. The Knights (22-10) were hoping to summon some of the magic that helped them stun defending national champion UConn and upset Memphis two months earlier. But on this day the Tigers' athleticism was just too overwhelming and too suffocating and the result was very much similar to last week's 29-point loss in Memphis.
The Knights, who have already eclipsed last season's 21-win season, will now await a possible postseason bid from likely the NIT. With a handful of signature victories and a strong conference season, UCF has a solid chance of not only getting into the NIT, but hosting a game. The Knights were a school-best 16-1 at UCF Arena this season.
The NIT selection show is Sunday night at 9 p.m. on ESPNU.
``(Memphis) had a lot to do with why we didn't play so well,'' UCF coach Donnie Jonessaid. ``We didn't have a great night, but it doesn't really define who this UCF team is or how we've played all year long. I'm very proud of this team and what we've accomplished. Hopefully we have an opportunity for some kind of postseason play, but we're just not sure what that will be at this point.''
Isaiah Sykes, playing once again with a badly sprained left wrist, led the Knights with 11 points and seven rebounds before fouling out of the game with 10:32 to play. No other Knight reached double figures in scoring as the team shot 33.3 percent from the floor and made only two of 19 3-point shots.
UCF senior guard A.J. Rompza left the game with 90 seconds to play after compiling five points, seven rebounds and three assists. Junior standout Marcus Jordan had nine points and two 3-pointers, but suffered through a frustrating game. Junior center Josh Crittlechipped in nine points by making four jumpers and a free throw.
``Guys like Keith (Clanton) have to find other ways to score. Their length really bothered him,'' Jones said. ``They had him off-balanced all night. It's just really tough when we don't have him scoring for us and Marcus not scoring for us. We just don't have a lot of other options when those things aren't going our way.''
UCF, who will compete in C-USA one more season before making the jump to The Big East, was making its first appearance in the semifinals of the C-USA Tournament since its entry into the conference in 2005. The fourth-seeded Knights got to Friday's game by earning a first-round bye and a third defeat of UAB this season.
``If we get a chance to play in the postseason we want to play for our seniors. This could be A.J. and P.J. (Gaynor's) last time playing with us, so we still have something to play for,'' Clanton said. ``I feel like we need that chance to show that we're a better team than we played today. We know we can play harder and more aggressive and compete with any team, but we didn't compete like we know how today.''
Memphis is the host city for the C-USA tourney for a ninth time, and the Tigers have had plenty of success on their home court. Four of their previous five C-USA titles have come in Memphis. The Tigers, who had four starters in double figures in scoring on Friday, will face sixth-seeded Marshall in Saturday morning's title game at the Fed Ex Forum. The Thundering Herd, triple overtime winners on Thursday, upset second-seeded Southern Miss on Friday.
The Knights entered the game with plenty of confidence after having already defeated defending national champion UConn and Memphis. UCF toppled Memphis 68-67 on Jan. 18 and celebrated with fans and students storming the court. The second game against Memphis wasn't as pleasant as the Tigers won 84-55 at the FedEx Forum a week ago.
UCF knew several things had to fall its way on Friday to have a chance, and sadly they did not go that way in the second half.
Down 14 points at the half, UCF twice got within 12 points early in the second half to provide a glimmer of hope. But Memphis spurts of 7-0 and 11-0 turned the game into a rout.
``In the games we lost this season we didn't come with the focus and energy that we needed,'' said Memphis forward Will Barton, who had 10 points, seven rebounds and six assists. ``We feel like when we're on our game we can beat anybody. When we play our game, play defense and play with focus we're pretty hard to beat.''
UCF trailed 36-22 at the intermission because of an offensive drought early in the game and an inability to stop Memphis' drives to the hoop. The Knights made just nine of 25 shots in the first 20 minutes. They got to the free throw line just four times, while Memphis shot 14 free throws and got UCF in foul trouble.
Four Knights had at least two baskets in the first half, while Rompza had a hand in four field goals.
UCF looked sharp and ready to embrace the moment in the early going, getting baskets from Sykes and Josh Crittle. And when Jordan drilled a 3-pointer four minutes into the game, UCF had an early 7-5 lead.
That's when the missed shots, turnovers and empty possessions began to pile up for the Knights, who went the next 5 minutes, 32 seconds without scoring. Memphis used that drought to break the game open, scoring 13 straight points to spring to an 18-7 lead.
UCF eventually steadied its offense and got back into the game. By the time Jordan made his second 3-pointer of the night - off an assist from Rompza after he pushed the ball hard on the fastbreak - the Knights were back within 31-19 with 3 minutes left in the first half.
Despite Friday's disappointing result, the Knights hope that there is still plenty of basketball left in this season for them. UCF made a run to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational last season and the hope now is that they can repeat the feat in the NIT.
``We come in today with a (No.) 50 RPI and this game doesn't define who we are,'' Jones said. ``We have 22 wins, two top 50 wins and we've won 11 games in this league. What we have done all year long will hopefully be enough to get us a NIT bid.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.