April 27, 2009
The UCF women's basketball team had a historic season in 2008-09, highlighted by a memorable run to the Conference USA tournament title and subsequent trip to the NCAA Tournament. The following recap of the Knights' season appeared in the most recent edition of KnightVision.
When the UCF women's basketball team was picked to finish last in Conference USA entering the 2008-09 season by the league's coaches, inside the team's locker room the Knights still believed.
Even though they had the fourth-youngest team in the country in terms of underclassmen, the Knights still believed.
Even though they won just two of their 13 non-conference games heading into C-USA play, the Knights still believed.
Even though missing out on a first-round bye meant they would have to become just the second team in league history to win four games in four days to claim the C-USA tournament title, the Knights still believed.
The players and coaches did not care what outsiders thought of their team, they did not care how unlikely it was for a team so young to stay mentally tough with a 2-11 record, they did not care about playing four days in a row or having to knock off the one, three and four seeds to win the C-USA tourney.
They believed in each other, they believed that if they kept putting in hard work it would pay off, they believed what they had been through would only make them stronger, and they believed in their coaches and their plan.
"No matter what happened during the season or what other people thought of us, our players bought in to the bigger picture," said head coach Joi Williams. "They never gave up on our goals, and more importantly they never gave up on each other. Successful teams really buy into what the coaching staff is saying, and they believe that if they do buy in good things will happen. When our players bought in this season, good things happened for our team."
That belief led UCF to an 11-5 record in league play, to a remarkable run to the C-USA tournament title and to closing their first round game of the NCAA Tournament against perennial power North Carolina on a 9-0 run to fall just 85-80 to the heavily-favored Tar Heels.
"That same perseverance that helped us to overcome the tough start to the season helped us to win those four games in four days at the conference tournament and helped us to play hard for 40 minutes against a talented North Carolina team," added Williams. "Our players have a lot to be proud of. No matter what happens from here with this group, the members of the 2008-09 team are a part of making history here at UCF, and that is special."
It would be fair to say that the run to making history started at home against Southern Miss on January 3 in the C-USA opener. UCF was 2-11, and the game pitted the team picked to finish first in conference play against the team picked to finish last. The Knights won the game 65-59, a score that shocked many around the league but was no surprise inside the home locker room.
"Even at the point when we were 2-11 our expectations were high," said Williams. "Despite our record we felt like we had everything we needed to be a good team. We met right before the Southern Miss game and we talked about being in the top half of the standings. That win really gave our team confidence and jumpstarted our conference season."
The Knights used that jumpstart and built on it, finishing in a tie for second place in the league standings at 11-5. The 11 wins equaled the program's total in its first three seasons in the league, a span which did not see the Knights finish higher than 11th in the conference.
Along the way UCF beat East Carolina for the first time in the program's history, toppled regular season league champion SMU in the teams' only meeting and finished off a perfect 8-0 home record in C-USA play with wins over Memphis and UAB on the final weekend of the regular season.
Despite tiebreaking scenarios forcing UCF to the fifth seed in the C-USA tourney, the Knights entered with confidence. The team needed to win four games to claim the berth to the NCAA tournament but went in with the approach of taking one game at a time.
"We went into that tournament with the thought that we had to win one game," said Williams. Each day our goal was the same, to win one game. It was the same once we got to championship Sunday, to win one game. We wanted to stay in the moment and not allow ourselves to look ahead, and our players held true to that goal."
In the first round, UCF overcame a gimmick Rice defense that effectively held leading scorer Emma Cannon to just two shot attempts and three points. Getting clutch play from other contributors, including a big three late by sophomore Amber Kirkpatrick, the Knights escaped 66-64.
In the quarterfinals, the Knights sought revenge for an earlier defeat at the hands of fourth-seeded Houston, opening up an 18-point halftime lead en route to a 79-66 victory. Cannon and fellow sophomore Chelsie Wiley combined for 46 points.
Another 18 points and 19 rebounds from Cannon propelled UCF to a 62-51 semifinal win over top-seeded SMU, setting up a rematch with Southern Miss in the championship with the NCAA berth on the line.
In the title game, 40 minutes did not prove to be enough as the two teams were knotted at 52 at the end of regulation. Using stifling defense, UCF held Southern Miss to just two points in the extra session in pulling away to a 65-54 victory. Wiley scored 18 points while Cannon, the tournament MVP, added 16 points and 15 rebounds.
"Looking at our conference season and looking at the run we made in the C-USA tournament, the resiliency of our team sticks out," said Williams, named the 2008-09 C-USA Coach of the Year. "After starting out poorly with the tough non-conference season that we had, no one really gave us a chance in conference play. Then we hit a little road block with a tough road trip late in league play. Through it all I learned a lot about our young ladies and their ability to overcome adversity. They really responded from our coaching, from us pushing them and demanding so much of them."
Turning its attention to the program's first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1999, UCF prepared with the same confidence and belief it had all season long.
While to outsiders it looked like the Knights were destined to get blown out by a North Carolina team that entered the tournament with a national ranking of 11th and a 27-6 record, inside the Knights locker room they had only winning on their mind.
"For the most part, our team bought into our game plan against UNC and executed it," said Williams. "We played against a talented North Carolina team so we had little margin for error, and we had a couple of breakdowns, but all in all we did a good job carrying out the game plan. Our team was not intimidated and really felt we could win. It was bittersweet for all of us. I was proud of how we played but disappointed in the outcome because we really felt we could come away with a victory."
UCF played a hard-fought game against UNC only to come up just short in a five-point loss to the Tar Heels. Wiley knocked down five threes and scored a game-high 22 points. After battling foul trouble in the first half, Cannon had 15 points and 13 rebounds after the break to finish with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
"Now we have had a chance to step back and look at it. It was an amazing run. It almost indescribable that this young basketball team was able to accomplish such great things at such a young age," said Williams. "It was great to get the national exposure and show that we could compete on that stage. For our team it was good to see that we could play against teams of that level. Then to look now and know that the ceiling is so much higher and there are so many more things we can do is very exciting for our future."
The future of UCF women's basketball certainly is bright. Cannon and Wiley lead a group of returners for a team that dressed just nine sophomores and three freshmen for most of the season.
With that said, it is safe to say UCF will not be picked to finish last in 2009-10. Instead of being overlooked, the team will have a target on its back and every team will be gunning to beat the Knights.
"One of our main goals this season was to earn respect for this program, and that is something that I know we did. I am very proud of that, but we still have a ways to go so we can't relax. Now people will be coming after us, and we want to maintain a level of success at UCF and not be a one-hit wonder."
Cannon, a first-team all-conference player who finished fifth nationally in rebounding, is already one of the most decorated players in school history. She will enter her junior campaign having already accumulated 878 points and 654 rebounds in her UCF career.
After a breakout season in which she hit 73 three-pointers and scored over 500 points, Wiley was named to both the C-USA all-conference third-team and all-tournament team. She will return in the backcourt alongside two other starting guards, sophomore Angelica Mealing (7.6 ppg, 112 assists) and freshman Aisha Patrick (8.9 ppg, 75 steals).
The returners will be joined by incoming freshman Gevenia Carter, the 61st ranked high school senior in the country and the most highly-touted recruit in the program's history. Senior Jessica Hall, who led Memphis in scoring in 2007-08, will also be eligible after sitting out this past season after transferring.
So with arguably the most talented roster the program has ever had set for 2009-10, the Knights move forward proud of what they have accomplished but focused on the future. The team did more than anyone outside the program expected they would last season, but inside its own locker room UCF still believes they have much more to accomplish, and much more to prove.
"We had a meeting after the season and told them how proud we were of them and all that they accomplished. When we hang the banner and get the rings next season that will bring back memories, but right now it is over," said Williams. "Our first day of spring workouts was the first day of next season. If our players continue to buy in to that attitude and work hard to improve as individuals and as a team each day, then there should be more exciting things to come for this program."