ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF sophomore Isaiah Sykes swatted shots, drove to the rim with no regard for his body, aggressively grabbed rebounds in traffic and even made the fifth 3-pointer of his career - all in an effort to make sure there was no second-half repeat from Wednesday for the Knights.
Just three days removed from a poor finish in a loss to against Rice, UCF rode the do-everything play of the steadily blossoming Sykes in the second half to pull away from UTEP, 63-45, at UCF Arena.
Sykes, who is quickly evolving into one of UCF's leaders, overwhelmed UTEP in the second half with his athleticism down low and his toughness on the glass. In the game, he had 23 points and 11 rebounds with 17 points and six rebounds coming over the final 20 minutes. Simply put, Sykes was too strong and tough when UTEP guarded him with a smaller player and too explosive when the Miners used bigger forwards against him.
``That's what he does, a little bit of everything,'' UCF coach Donnie Jones said. ``I told him last game when you come off being the Conference USA Player of the Week you sometimes think you get those awards just by scoring. But he has to continue to being the player that he is. And that's doing things like rebounding, scoring, getting buckets in transition, getting fouled and making free throws. It's just about getting ugly baskets. And he's starting to make threes now.''
UCF (20-8 overall and 9-5 in C-USA play) hit the 20-win plateau for a second consecutive season. The Knights, who never trailed Saturday night, also improved to a stellar 15-1 at home and remained very much in the running for a top-four seed and a first-round bye in the C-USA Tournament.
Junior forward Keith Clanton added 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists, while Marcus Jordan chipped in 11 points while splitting time at both guard positions.
UCF finished with just three turnovers, the third-fewest ever in a C-USA game. It was a dramatic improvement over Wednesday when UCF kicked the ball away 18 times in a head-scratching 83-74 loss to Rice.
UCF also held a 37-27 advantage on the glass and grabbed a whopping 18 offensive rebounds. That allowed the Knights to get off 18 more shot attempts. In addition to Sykes' five offensive boards, three other Knights grabbed multiple rebounds off the offensive glass.
``We just got thoroughly pounded in every aspect of the game. UCF was better than us in all areas, especially on the boards,'' said UTEP coach Tim Floyd, whose red-hot Miners had beaten Memphis, Southern Miss and Tulsa of late in a four-game winning streak. ``We gave up 18 off rebounds and they had so many possessions in which they got four or five shots because we made no commitment to getting the ball off the glass.''
The effort on the glass was a product of the hard work UCF put in in practice after the disappointing loss on Wednesday, Sykes said.
``The attitude (after the Rice loss) was real focused. Everybody came to practice and competed extra hard like we were going against our opponents and that gave us an edge,'' Sykes said. ``Our practices were like game time so that gave us an extra edge.''
The Knights play next in Memphis on Tuesday in a game that will be televised regionally on CSS and locally on Bright House Sports Network. The Knights recorded one of the biggest wins in school history on Jan. 18 when they defeated Memphis 68-67 and fans celebrated by storming the court at UCF Arena. The Tigers (21-8 overall and 11-3 in C-USA play) are back on top of Conference USA and were 20-point winners at Marshall on Saturday.
UCF will then close the regular season on Saturday at home against UAB. The league tournament will be held in Memphis March 7-10. The Knights are hoping to finish the regular season strong, earn a top-four seed and gain a first-round bye in the tournament.
``(Next week) is real big for us because we know where we're trying to get to. We're trying to make the NCAA Tournament and we know every win counts,'' Clanton said. ``We have two games left, so we have to come with intensity and play hard.''
Kasey Wilson, a native of North Port who has blossomed in the second half of his freshman season, got his first start of his UCF career. And because of a numbers situation with A.J. Rompza and Josh Crittle not in the starting lineup, the Knights played three freshmen in the first half - Rod Days, Wayne Martin and Wilson. Wilson had four points, four rebounds and three blocked shots in 17 minutes.
UTEP's only encouraging stretch of the night came early in the second half when it worked to tie the game at 29-all with 16:10 to play. It had to evoke memories of Wednesday when the Knights were outscored 46-25 in the second half against Rice. But this time, UCF mustered a 15-3 run to regain control of the game.
``We didn't flinch with that (UTEP run). We knew it was going to be an all-the-way-down-to-the-buzzer game and we just focused on getting stops,'' Jones said. ``We weren't so focused on scoring. The thing I was most proud of was us having 13 assists and three turnovers and we got looks every time down. The difference in the Rice game was we turned the ball over and gave up 16 points off turnovers. That was the difference in the game, beating ourselves. This was a great team win.''
UCF battled through some cold shooting in the first 20 minutes and led 25-23 at the intermission because of the do-everything play from Sykes. Not only did he have six points, five rebounds and two assists early on, but he also delivered two highlight-worthy plays.
First, Sykes converted a difficult scoop shot in the lane despite having his legs cut out from under him and having to flip the ball up at the rim. Later in the half, an acrobatic Sykes leaped over Jordan to swat Jacques Streeter's layup attempt off the glass. Not to be outdone, Sykes hustled back down the floor and finished the play with a layup.
``It was great to see us get a team win and everybody contributed,'' Sykes said. ``Every play of the night to me was a great play.''
Sykes had to be on his game early in the game as Jordan and Clanton once again got off to slow starts. They were a combined two of 10 in the first half, missing their last eight shots after making their first baskets. UCF hit just 29.6 percent of its shots in the first half. That was surprising considering that the Knights had shot a solid 52.3 percent from the floor in the three previous games. But the Knights still had the lead at the break because of their ability to convert several hustle plays.
``We were real determined to not let (a second-half collapse) happen again. We slipped up against Rice and we didn't want that to happen again because we're still playing for something,'' Clanton said. ``Our goal is still ahead of us, so we came out and played hard and play with intensity.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.