ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF made a bold statement Thursday night, announcing that it will once again be a prominent player in the mix for this year's Conference USA's women's basketball title. And the Knights have the unrelenting will of Aisha Patrick and Erika Jones to thank for it.
Patrick scored a career-best 28 points and Jones grabbed 20 rebounds to go along with a career-high 14 points as UCF played one of its best halves of the season in a 59-53 defeat of East Carolina at UCF Arena.
Patrick and Jones were at the forefront at the end of the game as the Knights (6-7 overall; 1-0 C-USA) opened conference play with a victory. Patrick, who scored 18 second-half points, hit game-sealing free throws with 13 seconds to play. Seconds earlier, Jones, a force inside all game, snatched her final rebound to give her a second 20-rebound game of the season.
"It was just a sense of urgency because this is my senior year and our first conference game," said Patrick, who scored eight consecutive points for UCF during one critical stretch of the second half. "I was just trying to do what I could to help my teammates out, and we all did a great job of listening to our coaches and executing the game plan."
Winners of Conference USA two of the past three seasons, UCF played like champions when it mattered most on Thursday night. Once down as much as 10 points in the first half, UCF had a 9-2 run just before the half.
UCF got big second-half 3-pointers from Leo Montalvo and Andrea Hines to spark a game-changing run. Once down 36-25 in the second half, UCF used a 15-2 run to grab control. The Knights never lost the lead again, outscoring East Carolina (6-8; 0-1 C-USA) 33-24 in the second half.
UCF's three seniors - Ashia Kelly, Racine Davis and Patrick - moved to within three victories of becoming the winningest senior class in UCF's C-USA history. UCF head coach Joi Williams credited Patrick with an assist in firing up the team for the strong closing stretch that produced the victory.
"We just reminded the seniors that this was their final Conference USA season and we asked them how they wanted to go out. (Patrick) said in one of the timeouts that we had to pick up the energy level, and I'm glad that her teammates followed suit. That's what it's all about -- being a leader," Williams said. "Our experience is invaluable and you can't really explain how much that means, especially to these seniors who have won two championships. They have been in tight games and have had to win with their backs to the wall."
UCF won for the first time all season after trailing at the half. The Knights had been 0-6 before Thursday. Dead ahead now for the Knights is a Sunday afternoon game in New Orleans against Tulane, whom UCF defeated in the C-USA championship game last spring.
"Tulane has played very well in the nonconference and had some very good wins. Year-in and year-out, they always have a good team,'' Williams said. "The conference is wide open. Tulane is one of the teams that will be standing there at the end. We're going to try and go get one on the road and that means we have to take our defense and rebounding with us."
Jones, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Alabama, took care of the rebounding and post play against East Carolina. Her 20 rebounds were just four shy of her career high (24) set on Nov. 12 against South Alabama. It was her fifth double-digit rebound game of the season and she added the 14 points by making seven of nine shots.
"I feel like I can be the best rebounder in the conference," Jones said. "I don't want to let my coaches down and I want to show everybody that they are teaching me well."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.