March 15, 2010
By John Denton
Orlando, Fla. - With her team in tears and the nerves still raw from a crushing 63-62 loss to Tulane just minutes earlier in the Conference USA tournament, UCF women's basketball coach Joi Williams knew she had to seize the moment.
Williams broke the silence in the locker room by asking her team to bottle up the pain they were feeling and use it to stoke the competitive fire throughout the offseason. Then, when next season rolls around, and UCF's talented core is still together and mostly full of seniors and juniors, the group can unleash that frustration on the opposition.
``We just told them to think about how they felt after their freshman year [losing in the first round] and compare that to last year winning [the 2009 C-USA Tournament] as sophomores. Now, as juniors, not having the season we set out to have and losing like this. Now that they will be seniors there's a sense of urgency that we need to have,'' Williams said.
``I hope the way they feel right now, when they go train in the offseason they will remember this,'' the coach continued. ``When we're sitting here next year, we want to be sitting here on the last day and as the team going to represent Conference USA in the NCAA tournament.''
The Tulane team that eliminated the Knights last week went on to win the C-USA tournament, but it's UCF that will be a heavy favorite to return to the title game next season. Eleven of the top 12 players on the team will be back, including all five starters. And it is a group that is loaded with plenty of experience, having started together two years ago and built the program into what it is today.
But clearly the clock has already started ticking on next season for a Knights team that will have a championship-or-bust mentality.
``Losing the way we did this year hurts so bad, but everything happens for a reason,'' said junior forward Emma Cannon. ``Now, we've just got to come back as seniors next year strong and with more of a sense of urgency.''
What made last week's loss to Tulane particularly galling was that the Knights had won seven of 10 games down the stretch and knew they were every bit the equals of the tournament's top seed. On Jan. 31 at home, UCF had the Green Wave down 10 with five minutes to play, but lost 72-70 following a stream of frustrating turnovers. And last Tuesday, UCF led by three with 36 seconds to play, only to give up two baskets down the stretch for the frustrating one-point loss.
One tremendous bright spot, however, was the grit that the Knights showed throughout that game. UCF fell behind by as many as 11 points and appeared on the verge of being blown out, but it showed the heart of a champion by fighting back and regaining the lead.
``We knew we had to fight for this game, but we just wanted to take it one minute at a time,'' said junior guard Chelsie Wiley, the hero of the opening win against Marshall. ``To win, we had to get rebounds and defensive stops and that's how we took it to the end. This team will never stop fighting.''
Williams and her players knew that the winner of that game would likely go on to win the C-USA crown. That's exactly what happened - but it just turned out to be Tulane this time around instead of UCF.
``This loss hurts because we felt like we could match up with anybody,'' Williams said. ``This tournament was wide open. Tulane made a couple of plays at the end and that was the story. But we felt good about our chances.''
And UCF's chances will be good of winning it all in league play next season will be tremendous if it can figure out the closing issues and maddening inconsistency that has plagued the team each of the past two seasons.
UCF lost its first 14 games when it trailed with 5 minutes to play, but won the first round game against Marshall with a late rally. And they almost did the same against Tulane. Too often, UCF came up on the short end of close games because of inefficient play on the offensive end.
Williams is hoping that coming up short this season after winning it all in 2009 will help sharpen her team's focus for the future.
``Obviously, we're very disappointed because we came here with great expectations. It's disappointing because we felt like we had the game and let (the Tulane game) slip through our hands,'' Williams said. ``We have a lot to learn from this game. Hopefully this loss will propel us forward and we'll take it into next season.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.