TAMPA – The second-largest crowd since the Yuengling Center was refurbished in 2012 turned out to see USF and UCF battle for the second time this season on Wednesday night.
It was a spirited gathering for sure, as among the announced 7,231 were 1,613 USF students who kept the noise level up through most of the game. At least several hundred Knights fans were on hand as well to add to a refreshing atmosphere in a venue that lacked much in the way of passionate gatherings for men’s basketball in recent years.
The I-4 rivals are playing for a lot these days as they entered their matchup with a combined 38 wins. The Knights went on an early second-half tear to propel them to a 75-63 victory, which prevented the Bulls from a school record-tying 15th home win.
The win marked the eighth straight by UCF over USF.
Leading 36-33 at the break, UCF went on an 11-0 run early in the second half to take 50-36 advantage that proved too much for the home team to overcome.
“We showed glimpses of where we can get to and what type of environment we can have here and I think you saw that tonight,” said USF coach Brian Gregory. “So, I am appreciative. I wish we could have played a little better in the second half.”
In the first meeting between the teams in Orlando two weeks ago, UCF (21-6/11-4 AAC) stormed out to an 11-0 lead and kept the Bulls (18-10/7-8) at arm’s length throughout a 78-65 win.
The return engagement featured a much different pulse as the teams went back and forth throughout the first 20 minutes.
“I thought both teams traded blow for blow especially in that first half,” said UCF coach Johnny Dawkins. “It was a physical game and both teams embraced how it was played. That’s what a rivalry game is going to be about. Guys were a little chippy, it was a little feisty out there, but it was in a good way.”
What makes it good is what these teams are doing this season. UCF, which has its most wins since 2011-12, looks like an NCAA tournament team while the Bulls are enjoying a most unexpected turnaround. Seven of their 10 defeats have been by single digits with three of the losses coming in overtime.
“This is going to be a hell of a rivalry,” said Gregory. “The two coaches have an unbelievable amount of respect for each other. They do it the right way. He is going to get good players that play hard. We’re going to get good players that play hard. It’s going to be great.”
Tacko Fall, who had a game-high 21 points and was 9-for-21 from the line in the first meeting, led the way again with 18 points. This time around he was 6-for-8 from the line.
“With Tacko, when he has the presence he has and when he is knocking down free throws, there is no better big (man) in the country, I think,” said Dawkins. “That’s what he has shown especially over these last three weeks to a month of the season.”
The Knights, who shot 55.6 percent, got 15 points from B.J. Taylor and 14 from Aubrey Dawkins.
The Bulls were led by Justin Brown’s 15 points. The sophomore made all four of his field goal attempts, including a trio of three-pointers. The second of his successful shots from beyond the arc brought the Bulls to within 63-55 with 3:49 remaining. Alas, USF got no closer.
“It seemed like they were playing harder than we were,” said Brown. “They wanted it more at certain times and it can’t be that way if we want to beat the best teams in this conference.”
USF leads the all-time series 22-17.