On Tuesday night, the UCF’s women’s basketball team will make its long-awaited return to Addition Financial Arena, hosting Duquesne in the 2021-22 season opener.
The Knights are coming off of a season in which they earned their highest NCAA Tournament seeding in program history after finishing with a 16-5 record and a 12-2 mark in AAC play. Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s team ultimately came up short against Northwestern in the first round of the tournament after losing second-leading scorer Diamond Battles to a devastating injury in the second quarter of the game, but it was still quite the journey during what was a difficult season that was heavily impacted by COVID-19.
Now, UCF enters its new season looking to make its third tournament appearance in four years (really its third in three years, as the pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 tournament). Not to mention, the Knights are still searching for the first-ever March Madness win. But before they can start thinking too much about winning in March, they’ll be looking to play their way to the first AAC title in program history after coming up just short against rival South Florida at the end of the 2020-21 season.
Here are three reasons to get fired up for the sixth season of the Coach Abe Era:
Returning the most experienced—and perhaps most talented—team in UCF history
UCF is returning an extremely experienced and talented roster for the 2021-22 season. Abrahamson-Henderson acknowledged during the team’s media day that this was going to be the most experienced squad she’s had during her tenure in Orlando, and that’s expected to pay dividends. The Knights are reaping the benefits that came with student-athletes being granted an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as Masseny Kaba, Tay Sanders and Jnaya Walker are all returning as fifth-year seniors.
Kaba was selected to the AAC All-Tournament Team a year ago, while Sanders led the team in scoring last season before being a preseason all-conference selection this year. Walker was a key contributor off the bench last season, playing in 21 games and starting three.
Beyond the trio of super seniors, the Knights return two-time all-conference selection Brittney Smith and Alisha Lewis, last year’s AAC Newcomer of the Year and Sixth Player of the Year. And it goes without saying that the team will be thrilled to have Diamond Battles back after she suffered an unfortunate injury in the NCAA Tournament. The guard from Winter Haven averaged 10 points per game last year and scored 15 points per game in the AAC Tournament before being named an all-tournament selection.
Having such an extensive amount of talent—99.8% of their scoring and rebounding from last year, in fact—return will serve the Knights well, plus there are a number of players throughout the rest of the roster who will be competing for minutes and rounding out what should be one of the deeper rosters in the whole conference this season.
A schedule loaded with marquee matchups
There’s no doubt that the Knights will have their hands full throughout the 2021-22 season. Their schedule features plenty of high-profile matchups, starting with the second game on the slate. After opening up against Duquesne on Tuesday night, UCF will host No. 12 Tennessee on Friday at Addition Financial Arena. Belmont, like UCF, is receiving votes in the USA Today/WBCA preseason top 25, which makes for another intriguing matchup on Nov. 21.
After the first couple of weeks of the season, the team will head south of the border, where it will play USC and Idaho State in the Cancun Challenge. Following that trip, three of UCF’s first four games in December will be against teams that reached the NCAA Tournament last season. Arkansas will come to Orlando on Dec. 2 for one of those games, while the other two will be on the road. The Knights play at Mercer on Dec. 12 and will then head to play Iowa on Dec. 18 two games later. A trip to play Ivy League powerhouse Princeton on Dec. 29 will then spell the end of non-conference play for UCF.
AAC play should be a challenge for the Knights, who were picked to finish second in the conference for the second straight season. Houston, which made an appearance in last year’s WNIT, will come to Addition Financial Arena on Jan. 11 before the Knights make the return trip on Feb. 9. And, of course, all eyes will be on the War On I-4 matchups, which have been the conference’s biggest games as of late. The Knights and Bulls first square off in Orlando on Jan. 16 before meeting again in Tampa on Feb. 13.
Overall, the Knights have the type of schedule that will give them plenty of chances to pick up resume-building wins as they try to go dancing for the third time in six seasons under Coach Abe.
Continuing to build a foundation for the future
It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that the 2021-22 season could very well be a launching pad for the future of UCF women’s basketball. The move to the Big 12 in a couple of years will bring significant challenges for the Knights, as they will be joining a conference that includes national powerhouse and recent national champion Baylor, as well as recent tournament teams Oklahoma State, Iowa State, West Virginia and BYU. That’s already impacting recruiting, as Coach Abe has received commitments from two of the nation’s top-100 players for next season. And if UCF wants to quickly establish itself in the upper echelon of its new league, there’s no better time to start building momentum than now.
With a team as richly talented as UCF will have this season, another hugely successful year would go a long way. Not that it’s a championship-or-bust situation for the Knights in the AAC this year, but making the leap and taking home the conference crown would be monumental for this program. Not only would it help the Knights build toward its jump to the Big 12, but it would also help cement the program’s legacy in the conference it will soon be departing.
When UConn left the AAC in 2020, it meant UCF and South Florida were the top two teams remaining in the conference. And, as painful as it is to remember, the Bulls earned the AAC title last year by beating the Knights in the tournament title game. It would be a shame for Coach Abe and her squad to leave the conference without a trophy, and given the experience on the roster this year, it feels like this would be the best chance UCF has to reach the mountain top before moving on in a couple of years.