Featuring a number of new players, UCF Men’s Basketball came into Friday’s season opener against Mercer looking to continue last year’s success. They did just that, beating the Bears 88-79.
Despite being short-handed, and having to figure out new line-ups, the Knights were able to overcome a one-point halftime deficit – due in large part to their new-found depth. Already without junior Aubrey Dawkins for the season, UCF came into the game without the services of junior center Tacko Fall due to a sore hip and lost point guard B.J. Taylor early in the second half to a foot injury.
“There has been a learning curve for us, that’s why I knew this was going to be a real challenge for us,” coach Johnny Dawkins said. “We have a lot of new pieces and we’re trying to mix them in with players that’s been established players for us, and doing in so, that where you’re dealing with chemistry.
After being one of the top defensive teams last season, the Knights leaned on their new, fast-paced offense to win the game. Using a rotation that included five new players, the Knights scored 46 points on 54 percent shooting in the first half. They did, however, struggle defensively, especially to contain Mercer’s Ria’n Holland, who had 21 of the Bear’s 47 first half points.
The Knights were able to fix some of their defensive problems after halftime. The Bears shot just 29 percent in the second half, thanks to a 12-0 UCF run. UCF held Mercer scoreless for nearly five minutes. Dawkins challenged Dayon Griffin and Chance McSpadden to corral Holland, and it worked. He was held to just nine points in the second half.
When asked about what led to the improved defensive effort, senior A.J. Davis said, “Just get back to our principles. We got kind of excited. We were playing a little bit of a faster pace and scoring the ball so well that we got away from what we do. We’re a defensive team, and that’s what we take pride in.”
Offensively, UCF had a well-distributed scoring effort. They had four players in double figures, led by Griffin and Ceasar DeJesus, who both finished with 16. Davis – who finished with eight points, 15 rebounds and three blocks – was able to help fill the voids left by the injured Fall and Taylor.
“I thought A.J. had a huge performance for us, both handling the basketball, as well as rebounding.” Dawkins said. “I mean 15 rebounds against that team, he did a great job. And he had the ball in his hands a lot on fastbreak pushing it and making plays.”
Though they got the win tonight, Dawkins will look to focus on improving their defense when they play Gardner-Webb at home on Wednesday.