Nov. 5, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - There were instances Saturday night when West Virginia Tech made spirited runs at UCF's severely short-handed squad, getting within five points of the lead five different times, but Knights' coach Donnie Jones resisted the notion to call a timeout.
Even with a roster gutted by suspensions, UCF toughed it out through the tense moments and rode big performances from standout junior Keith Clanton and a couple of newcomers in an 81-66 exhibition game defeat West Virginia Tech.
Jones' silence along the sidelines in the second half was tactical as he wanted his young, short-handed squad to learn how to fight its way through some adversity.
``We had a lot of timeouts, but I wanted guys to push through it and learn to play through fatigue and adversity early on,'' Jones said. ``I thought it was good for those guys to play through some adversity and we did. We battled through it and found a way to win it at the end.''
Clanton, a preseason All-Conference USA first-team pick, carried UCF from start to finish with 28 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. Sophomore Isaiah Sykes, who split time at the two guard slots, nearly recorded a triple double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Sophomore transfer Tristan Spurlock chipped in 16 points and seven rebounds, while freshman Rod Days had 15 points, three assists and two steals in his collegiate debut.
The Knights had just eight players available for the exhibition opener. Standout shooting guard Marcus Jordan, forward P.J. Gaynor, center Josh Crittle were suspended for violations of team rules. And senior point guards A.J. Rompza and Jeff Jordan were withheld pending resolution of NCAA eligibility matters.
Following the regular season-opener next Saturday at UCF Arena against Saint Thomas, UCF travels to Tallahassee to face Florida State on Nov. 14. Jones hopes to have his entire roster in place in time for the early-season showdown against a Seminoles team that reached the Sweet 16 last season.
``Tonight was good for our team because we got a chance to play our freshmen, and that's what these exhibitions are about,'' Jones said. ``Throughout the season there are going to be times when guys are hurt or out, and as I've told this team from Day 1, we're very deep and have a lot of pieces and that showed. (The suspended players) will continue to practice each day and we'll get better as a team.''
UCF led 35-29 at the half on the strength of Clanton's stellar play. He scored UCF's first seven points of the game and had 17 by halftime. Noticeably slimmer and more confident in his shooting stroke, Clanton made seven of his first nine shots, including two 3-point shots.
For the game, Clanton made 11 of 19 shots, three of five 3-point tries and three of four free throws. His improved conditioning after playing throughout the summer allowed him to play 37 minutes.
``Keith has to play with that kind of swagger every night, like he's the best player on the court,'' Jones said. ``We talk about that with him, and he played like that tonight. You can see the condition he's in and it's because he's one of our hardest workers. It used to be that the old Keith Clanton would get winded and take plays off on the defensive end. But now he's playing both ends at a pretty high level.''
The Knights got some solid contributions early on from players making their UCF debuts. Spurlock, the transfer from Virginia, showed off his versatility early in the game with five points and five rebounds.
Days and Kasey Wilson, true freshmen who are a part of Jones' first full recruiting class, both had dazzling blocked shots in the first half. Days, a 6-foot-6 guard from Miami Gardens, stuffed Donald Robinson at the rim on a dunk attempt in the first few minutes of the game. Then, Wilson prevented a break-away dunk by Josh Proctor by tipping the ball away. Wilson and Days also both made 3-pointers in the first half.
Days ended up with three 3-pointers, two of them coming after West Virgina Tech had carved into UCF's lead. Jones likes the freshman's toughness and he feels that the depth of his roster will allow the team to play at a much faster pace this season.
``Most freshmen when they get out the first time they would be thinking a lot, but Rod has that ability to make the mid-range shot,'' Jones said. ``He hit three threes that were good shots off good passes. He's a big, 6-6 guard and is a good defender. He's going to give us good minutes and I'm excited about him.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.