March 7, 2012
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By John Denton
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF's dreams of repeating as conference champions ended Wednesday due to early turnover woes and shooting struggles throughout opening-round play.
UCF beat Southern Miss handily twice during the regular season, but the Knights were often their own worst enemy on Wednesday in first-round play of the Conference USA Tournament at the Elma Roane Fieldhouse. UCF shot just 30 percent from the floor and gave up 28 points off 22 turnovers in a 71-49 loss to rival Southern Miss.
Eighth-seeded UCF (12-17) entered the tournament hoping to summon some of the magic that helped it win two of the last three C-USA tournaments. UCF had been 12-4 in March over the past five years under head coach Joi Williams, including the two magical postseason runs.
But much like late in the season when UCF lost its final four regular-season games, it couldn't overcome the many struggles on the offensive end of the floor.
"It was a combination of them playing good defense and us not making good decisions," Williams said. "We talked about the fact that being nervous and having anxiety is normal, but we needed to turn it into positive energy. I thought our energy was good throughout the game, but we just didn't play as smart as we needed to at times. Southern Miss made us pay for our mistakes. It's a tough lesson to learn, but we'll be better for it next year."
The loss ended the glorious career of seniors Aisha Patrick, Ashia Kelly and Racine Davis, who helped the Knights to league championships in 2009 and 2011 and NCAA berths each season. Patrick, whose number No. 10 could someday hang in the rafters of UCF Arena, leaves the program as the only player in school history to score 1,000 points, grab 800 rebounds and hand out 300 assists.
Patrick finished with six points, five rebounds and three steals against the Golden Eagles, giving her 284 career steals to tie for first all-time in school history.
"It's been a great run for the last four years and I hate to see it end this way," Patrick said. "Hanging two banners and with our class being the winningest senior class [in C-USA play] at UCF is special. It feels good, but I just hate ending it like this."
UCF's trio of seniors left the game in the final minute to an ovation from the Knights supporters sitting by the team's bench.
Said Williams: "They have been the most successful senior class in Conference USA so far. They have two championships under their belts and have done a tremendous job throughout their careers. I couldn't be more proud of a group of seniors for how they have played for four years."
Junior forward Kayli Keough led the Knights with 14 points and six rebounds. Sophomore center Erika Jones had 13 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive glass.
Ninth-seeded Southern Miss (13-17) lost by 18 and 14 points to UCF during the regular season, but it never trailed after falling behind 5-4 early in the game. An 18-4 burst midway through the first half broke open a close game and the Golden Eagles never missed a beat after that.
UCF entered the day having beaten Southern Miss seven straight times, a factor that Southern Miss coach Joye Lee-McNelis rammed home to her team.
"UCF had taken it to us, kicked our behinds and taken names,'' Lee-McNelis said after the game. "But this Lady Eagle team played with a chip on its shoulder, wanting some revenge."
The Knights got within six points of the lead late in the first half (31-25) and six points of the lead early in the second half (39-33), but could never get any closer.
"We got with six a couple of times, but they just have a lot of firepower on offense," Williams said. "Their guards are outstanding, athletic and quick, but we didn't stay in front of the basketball. We'd tighten up the score and then we just gave up easy baskets. You just can't do that against a good team at tournament time. That, along with the turnovers just really hurt us."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.