“We were poor defensively tonight. Worst game we’ve played defensively all year long. We didn’t get stops. Will Coleman struggled. We couldn’t get stops whether it was man or zone, and we tried both.”
Coach Josh Pastner didn’t pull punches in evaluating his club’s win tonight, an affair much closer than he’d like at home against a UCF club limping along at 3-5 in C-USA play. In the first game since the dismissal of senior center Pierre Henderson-Niles, Pastner’s imprint was evident from the beginning. Freshman shooting specialist Drew Barham started, having played a total of 66 minutes in the team’s first 23 games. (Elliot Williams had played 76 minutes in the last two games.) Barham and fellow freshman D.J. Stephens combined to play 27 minutes to eat up the vacancy in the rotation. Stephens brought his usual energy boost and contributed seven rebounds in 17 minutes on the floor.
Behind for much of the first half, the Tigers took the lead just before the break on a three-pointer from Roburt Sallie in the right corner. The combination of UCF accuracy (the Knights shot 57 percent in the first half) and the return to earth of Wesley Witherspoon (he missed six of seven shots in the first half after scoring a total of 55 points in the Tigers’ last two games) had the visitors in position to win their first game in eight tries against Memphis.
The Tigers opened the second half on a 6-1 run, only to see UCF rally for a 12-0 spurt that had the Knights up by three with 7:30 to play. Tiger senior Doneal Mack converted a four-point play (fouled on a three-pointer, Mack drained the free throw) to give the Tigers a 63-62 lead with 6:35 on the clock. The lead change sparked the crowd of 16,581, and the U of M pulled away over the last five minutes. “I didn’t even think it was going in,” said Mack after the game. “I looked up, it was on point, and it went in. I knew it could be a momentum-builder, so I told the team to just pick it up on defense. So we could bury them.”
A pair of Elliot Williams passes led to late dunks, the first by Stephens, the second by Witherspoon. “A lot of things weren’t going for me tonight,” said Williams, “so one of the things I try and do is rebound and play distributor. A lot of other guys were knocking down shots.” (Williams finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists.) Five Tigers reached double figures in scoring, the first such performance since the win over Houston on January 23rd. Sallie and Mack were the top scorers with 15 points each.
UCF made 19 of its first 32 shots and finished the contest shooting 53 percent fromt the field. With Henderson-Niles gone and Will Coleman picking up four fouls in 17 minutes, interior defense became a soft spot for Memphis. UCF outscored the Tigers 32-28 in the paint. Knight freshman Marcus Jordan — the son of his Airness — penetrated and converted a couple of interior shots on his way to 10 points. A.J. Tyler led UCF with 18 points.
“We made our free throws,” emphasized Pastner. “We shot 79 percent from the free-throw line, and in tight games you have to do that. And just as importantly, we did a good job on the glass. We got 13 offensive rebounds, and that’s why we got the W.”
Now 17-7, the Tigers travel to Tulsa Saturday to take on the pace-setters in Conference USA.