UCF locked in defensively, gritting it out for a full 40 minutes in route to a 68-58 victory over Illinois in the NIT quarterfinals in front of the first sellout crowd in CFE Arena history.
“If you get in front of an environment like this and you get jacked up man,” Illinois interim coach Jamall Walker said. “that’s what college basketball is all about home court advantage—when you get in types of situations like this … it’s hard to win on the road.”
The Knights led nearly from end to end, leading for 37-plus minutes of action and building their lead to as much as 19. But with 4:06 remaining, the Fighting Illini cut the deficit to nine. But thanks to UCF’s stout defense and their dedication to finishing possessions with rebounds, they completed the upset over the No.2 seeded Illinois.
“They made some great plays and basketball is a game of runs, but we stayed solid defensively and we were finally able to buckle down and put some stops together, “redshirt junior forward A.J. Davis said.
UCF held Illinois to 31 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent from deep range. The Knights’ defense was solid all-around due to the fact that they were able to finish possessions off with the ball. They dominated the backboards, controlling the rebounding advantage 43-26.
Four of the Knights’ starters reached double figures, with Davis, redshirt sophomore B.J. Taylor, sophomore center Tacko Fall and redshirt senior guard Matt Williams combining for 60 of the team’s 68 points.
Fall was the Knights’ defensive anchor with 10 points, 10 rebounds and three rejections. But it was Fall’s aggression on the low block and his baby hook that stood out equally.
“I can just do more than just stay in the paint and wait for the guys to lob me the ball,” Fall said. “Those are the things I’ve been working on since last summer so I can defiantly do it.”
Illinois led for just the first two minutes and from there on UCF dictated the flow of the game after going on 9-0 and 10-3 runs to give themselves a 34-19 halftime advantage over the Fighting Illini.
Redshirt senior guard Matt Williams lit the Knights’ offensive fuse early as he scored on three consecutive jumpers, including two triples from the left and right wing that were at least three feet beyond the line. Williams posted a halftime game-high 13 points on 4-for-9 shooting from the field.
UCF was bonded on defense, strangling Illinois’ offensive attack, holding them to 27 percent shooting from the field and 5-for-16 shooting from beyond the arch.
“You have to really be able to slow down the players that are really impacting the scoreboard,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. “Our guys really dialed in tonight to neutralize them.”
UCF will travel to Madison Square Garden in New York City to face TCU on Tuesday.