The UCF Knights started off thunderous enough.
They had control of the game getting good looks from Tacko Fall and Adonys Henriquez, defending well and keeping Houston under check. They held the lead and were ready to compete and play hard. Chance McSpadden punctuate this with a steal from Galen Robinson Jr. and one-handed dunk. Houston was missing shots and there was a chance.
Then, as it has so often throughout the season, the drought came. The shots and offense became forced. The pace quickened and the Cougars were beating the Knights everywhere on the floor. Things got out of hand fairly quickly as UCF fell behind and got buried further down in a 88-61 loss to Houston at CFE Arena.
“Tough game,” coach Donnie Jones said. “As we know, confidence is something our team is struggling with right now. A couple tough plays don’t go our way and we just got ourselves down. We’ve got to push through that. That’s been a struggle for us with this team here. We look for senior leadership right now and we have not had a lot of guys to help us push through it right now.”
One of those senior leaders was out with junior center Justin McBride missing the game with a shoulder injury. That would have been a player the team could have dumped the ball into the paint to get some easy points. He has been a fairly reliable option for UCF even if he would not have been enough to stem the tide.
Jones said his team is so fragile right now because they have lost a few games and have had to fight so hard just to stay in games, that it has affected their ability to withstand these runs.
The Knights made just one field goal in the final 7:06 of the first half, giving up a 16-3 run to end the half. The Knights’ field goal percentage dipped from 52.6 percent to 40.7 percent in the first half. The Cougars got out on the break and just decimated.
Things were coming easy and they kept doing so in the second half. The Cougars opened up as much as a 33-point lead. They cut cleanly through the lane and passed with ease behind the the Knights’ defense.
The Cougars forced turnovers — 13 of them — and turned them into points constantly — 21 points of turnovers. They got out on the break to the tune of 18 fast-break points. Everything was rolling Houston’s way.
“Whenever the defense slows down, that’s when things change,” McSpadden said. “If the defense is not playing well, it’s hard to score on the offensive end. Defense is the whole key to winning the game. We just have to capitalize on that.”
Houston ended up shooting 56.7 percent for the game including 10 for 20 from beyond the arc. There was little resistance defensively as the Cougars were running off of the Knights’ misses — 2 for 11 from beyond the arc in the first half and 3 for 14 in the second — and scoring with seeming ease.
The missed 3-pointers turned into fast-break opportunities and the team was trying to shoot its way out. That can be a sure way, especially with this team’s offensive struggles, to fall even further behind.
UCF’s offense had no answers. They were not able to find any relief or make any easy shots. The shooting woes continued and the team just looked defeated.
The deficit and the crevasse this team has fallen into just seemed to be getting deeper and deeper.
Chance McSpadden led the Knights with 15 points, five rebounds and seven assists. A lot of his offensive work came with the game already decided in the second half. His effort and energy even in the face of the large deficit were noticeable and more than admirable.
Adonys Henriquez scored 12 points and A.J. Davis had a quiet eight as UCF ended the game shooting 40.6 percent. The Knights though started the second half shooting 6 for 20 from the floor, burying them deeper and deeper.
It seemed any chance for the Knights to make a run was quickly snuffed out.
Even on the first play of the second half, momentum was deflatingly dried up as a Staphon Blair block on the opening play of the second half fell right into Eric Weary’s hands for an open 3-pointer he calmly drained.
This is the way things are going for UCF, a never-ending spiral of frustration and eventual defeat.
“These guys, you know, they work hard,” Jones said. “I think every time we put so much energy and we have to try to fight back because we gave up that little run to go into into halftime. We were down 12 at half, but you thought we were down 30. Our guys were down. I’m trying to clap them on and breathe life into them at halftime. But I was just worried they felt like, ‘Here we go again.’ That’s where we have to get that confidence back.”
The Knights have been close on several occasions, but with that mindset it is tough to get anything back. The Knights could not reel things back to start the second half. Instead the gap widened and Houston turned it up on offense.
That is what happens when a team is 11-15 and 5-10 in AAC. The Knights were struggling to grind things through and run through the offense enough to get a good shot. It was a cycle of bad offense leading to transition and bad defense forcing UCF to execute mostly from the half court.
The Cougars just kept pouring it on and the Knights could not stop the tide. Not until that final buzzer sounded and the disappointing effort was forced to conclude.