ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - There was the flagrant foul that sent Isaiah Sykes sprawling into the crowd, his two thunderous dunks in transition and the many times he finished in traffic around the rim. He led the team in scoring, in rebounding and also had the play of the game with a backboard-shaking blocked shot high above the rim.
Yep, the sophomore small forward was seemingly everywhere Saturday night, and that's a very good thing for the UCF's men's basketball team.
The steadily blossoming Sykes had a career night Saturday, registering career highs in scoring (22 points) and rebounds (11 boards) as UCF shook off some sluggishness in a 67-48 defeat of Hartford at UCF Arena.
``I'm a lot more comfortable and more confident this year working with A.J. Rompza and Marcus (Jordan) every day, going hard and working every day,'' said Sykes, a Detroit native. ``I'm getting better and you are never too old to learn, so I have to keep learning.''
UCF (5-2) was playing its first game since its stirring run to a runner-up finish in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. The Knights whipped College of Charleston and then stunned defending national champion and No. 4 UConn for the third defeat of a ranked team during the Donnie Jones coaching era at UCF.
``I was happy with the way we finished the game and started the game, but I wasn't too happy in between there with our intensity level and how we competed,'' Jones said. ``Having a week off for our guys, they have to realize that even though we've had some time off that the tournament is over. We have to put that behind us and lock into who we're playing."
UCF standouts Keith Clanton (nine points) and Marcus Jordan (13 points) had off nights shooting the ball, but Sykes was there to rescue a Knights team that led winless Harford (0-8) by just four points midway through the second half. Sykes, who came into the game averaging 10.7 points, made nine of 14 shots and four of six free throws to easily eclipse his previous career high of 15 points.
Fellow sophomore Tristan Spurlock added a double-double with 10 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. He and Sykes scrapped for loose balls and converted on a night when offensive rhythm was in short supply.
``(Jordan and Clanton) just had off nights and as a team we're a lot more balanced this year,'' Spurlock said. ``It's not as big a deal now. Last year it probably would have been a lot worse when they had off nights. Other people just got it going, and (Sykes) got going and we were looking forward him when he was cutting. It's not a big surprise this year that someone else has a big night.''
With finals approaching, the Knights have a break until next Saturday when they play again. UCF hosts Bethune-Cookman next Saturday at 5 p.m. Home games against North Carolina A&T (Dec. 13) and Old Dominion (Dec. 17) follow the contest with the Wildcats. The Knights will host Stetson, James Madison and Rhode Island in the UCF Holiday Classic Dec. 29-30 before starting Conference USA play in January.
``We took a lot out of (the Bahamas tournament) because we played three different styles of play and probably three (NCAA) tournament teams,'' Jones said. ``We played three systems with a short period of time to prepare for. We showed some toughness in how we competed even though we fell short against a very good Harvard team. So we found out we can compete at that level, but we have to bring it every night.''
UCF still doesn't have its full roster available. Point guard A.J. Rompza won't return until Dec. 30 because of a violation of NCAA rules. On Saturday, UCF announced that true freshman Wayne Martin had been indefinitely suspended due to a violation of athletics department policy. Also, P.J. Gaynor was suspended for the Hartford game due to an unrelated violation of team rules.
Gaynor has averaged 4.6 points and 2.8 rebounds in five games so far this season, while Martin has appeared in just two games.
Hartford got as close as 44-40 in the second half when shooting guard Wes Cole made consecutive 3-pointers. Cole missed his first eight shots of the game before connecting on back-to-back threes.
UCF had a four-point possession when Hartford's Clayton Brothers was whistled for a technical foul by hitting four of six free throws. From there, Sykes converted a reverse layup with a high degree of difficulty and UCF slowly pulled away.
Using its press to smother Harford and set the tempo, UCF scored 21 consecutive points early in the game to pull away to a 25-6 lead. But the Knights didn't capitalize on the quick start, bogging down offensively and getting beaten by the penetration of Hartford guard Andres Torres.
Clanton was trapped every time that he touched the ball in the post in the first half and got off just three shots. Jordan had two 3-pointers and eight points in the first half, but the Knights made only 12 of 32 shots in the first 20 minutes of the game.
Sykes, whose growth this season has already been one of the most pleasant surprises, had the highlight of the first half when he hustled down the floor and prevented a layup by pinning Yolonzo Moore II's shot against the backboard.
``Coach Jones talks about not giving up on a play until the whistle blows no matter what,'' Sykes said. ``(Moore II) was running down ahead of us and I just put forth the effort we talk about in practice. Even if they are wide open and running uncontested, keep going. We all did a good job of that.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.