ORLANDO - It's February and that usually means two things for the UCF women's basketball team: It's time to win and it's time to separate themselves from all others in Conference USA.
Facing a rugged UAB team that boasted the second-ranked scoring defense in the nation, UCF got a big game from senior guard Aisha Patrick along with some stellar defense in a 41-39 victory at UCF Arena on Sunday in front of the second-largest crowd (1,744) in head coach Joi Williams' tenure.
In the past four seasons under Williams, UCF is now 18-7 in February. That mark includes an 11-1 run at UCF Arena. With wins against Tulsa and UAB this month, the Knights (11-12 overall, 6-5 C-USA) could be poised to make another strong closing kick before the C-USA tournament begins on March 7 in Memphis.
"It's time. We've talked about this moment being here when January ended. We came up short last weekend (against Memphis), but we've got to put it all out there this month," Williams said. "This is the time when teams separate themselves and we want to play (deep into) March. We've got to get it done in February and show that we're capable of winning these big games."
Sunday's game certainly qualified as one of UCF's biggest wins of the season considering the quality of opponent. UAB (17-6 and 8-3) has been the surprise of the league much of the season because of a defense that is allowing just 48.5 points per game.
But UCF flexed its defensive muscles Sunday, holding UAB without a field goal over the final 7:26 of the game. UCF also got four free throws and a couple of lockdown defensive plays from Patrick down the stretch for the narrow victory. UCF is 10-1 this season when holding foes to less than 60 points.
After the victory, Patrick - who was honored before the game for scoring her 1,000th career point - pumped her fists and enjoyed UCF's seventh win in the past nine meetings against UAB.
"It was a sense of urgency for me. The fans were loud and I was in the moment and it was my last time playing UAB at home. I guess you could say it was like a senior moment for me," said Patrick, who played all 40 minutes without a turnover and had 12 points and 10 rebounds. "The light bulb went off for me and I knew it was a big win for us."
Sophomore center Erika Jones posted 10 points and 14 rebounds. Junior forward Kayli Keough scored seven points, grabbed six rebounds, blocked three shots and drew three charges. Her defense helped the Knights hold UAB to 14 percent shooting in the second half and 28.6 percent for the game.
"This was huge for us, especially with us having a big crowd out here and wanting to give them a big show," Keough said. "February is so important to us and we know we've got to get that momentum going into the tournament."
The victory allowed UCF to remain in a tie for fifth place with Rice, who beat Tulsa on Sunday. The Knights are just a game back of Tulane (7-4) for fourth place. The top four seeds at the end of the regular season get a first-round bye in the C-USA tourney. The Knights, who have five regular-season games remaining, have won two of the past three C-USA tournament titles.
"February is that time and we're trying to separate ourselves," Williams said. "We have to be tunnel-visioned on just one game. With the experience we have of winning championships, we have to focus on one game and not worry about what if this happens or if that happens."
Trailing 39-33 with 7:25 to play, UCF started its 8-0 run to win the game. Andrea Hines scored the second of two consecutive layups, Keough drilled a jumper and Patrick hit four clutch free throws. The Knights did miss six free throws down the stretch when they could have sealed the victory and had to endure a 40-footer from UAB's LaShaunda Pratt as time expired.
"I think it was a sense of urgency from all of us. I didn't want us losing to UAB, not at home. They followed my energy and we had a good result," Patrick said. "The whole time I'm thinking, `Oh God, this is my last February playing together on this team and my last time with this program.' I just want us to go out as strong as we can."
Up next is Thursday's road game at Southern Miss at 8 p.m. eastern before Sunday's Pink Game at home against Memphis. The Knights are hoping to continue their February success and go into the postseason as a hot team playing its best basketball at the right time of the year.
"February is huge around here and getting that momentum to carry into the tournament is a big deal for us," Keough said. "Going into the tournament, we need to tighten everything up. Right now, there's no room for error. When we get to the tournament there will be absolutely no room for error so it's up to us now to get on a roll."
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.