COLUMBIA, S.C. – The stars seemed aligned for the drama-filled matchup college basketball junkies wanted. Duke legend Johnny Dawkins would get the chance to face off with his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski.
All that stood in the way was the small matter of the Knights getting their first-ever NCAA tournament victory. To achieve that feat, they would need to beat the eighth-seeded VCU Rams, who had not lost to anyone other than Rhode Island since January 12.
It wasn’t always a masterpiece – especially after going scoreless for the first six-plus minutes of the game – but the result was beautiful for the school from Orlando.
Three Knights finished in double figures, joining a stout defensive effort to guide UCF to a 73-58 first-round victory over VCU Friday night in Colonial Life Arena. The Knights’ stars made it clear after the game, however, that they weren’t content with a lone victory.
“It’s hard for me to talk about it right now because we’re in a moment, and we are already getting ready for the next one,” said UCF redshirt senior guard B.J. Taylor. “But it’s great for the program. It’s a great win. But we’ll reflect on that after the season’s over. Right now, we’re not satisfied. We want to keep this thing going. So we’re ready to get on to the next game.”
“It means a lot to us, to me, to the fans, finally being able to pull it off after all these years has meant a great deal to us,” added UCF center Tacko Fall. “But, as B.J. said, we’re not satisfied. We want to keep going as far as we can, and we’re going to bring it every night no matter who we play against.”
UCF (24-8) did not dent the scoreboard until a Terrell Allen bucket at the 13:37 mark. Fortunately for the Knights, they trailed just 5-0, as the UCF defense kept VCU at bay for that same prolonged stretch. That bucket keyed an 11-2 UCF run that extended the ninth seed’s advantage to six. The game stayed within an arm’s length for much of the period, before the Knights’ defense again stiffened in a stretch that proved incredibly pivotal.
VCU (25-8) got a Corey Douglas bucket at the 4:34 mark of the first half to tie the game at 24. The Rams would not score again for the remainder of the half, while UCF extended its margin to 10 at 34-24 as the horn sounded. The drought continued for VCU well into the second half, as UCF stretched its lead to 19 before the first Ram points came on two Vince Williams free throws with 14:19 remaining.
“I thought we played some of our best basketball both ends of the floor (during the 19-0 run),” said Dawkins. “I thought defensively, Tacko’s presence down there was amazing. I thought we rebounded it well. We knew they were going to crash the glass hard. And then offensively, I thought we made a lot of connecting plays. We shared the basketball. Guys found shots and rhythm shots they would normally take, and they were knocking them down tonight consistently, and I think that helped build the run for us.”
UCF built its lead as high as 20, strengthened by continued hot shooting and strong defense. As quickly as that lead developed, though, VCU unleashed a counterpunch.
The Rams surged back, producing a 16-3 burst that reduced the Knights’ lead to seven. As tension mounted in the arena, it would have been easy to think that the team without a March Madness victory to its credit would fold. Instead, UCF’s resolve strengthened. VCU scored just three points over the final 4:53, as Dawkins’ club put the result on ice.
“I’m proud of our guys. I’ll always look at it as me being proud of my team, proud of my coaching staff,” said Dawkins. “It takes a team to accomplish these things, and I’ll always think about that. I’ll think about all the contributions of the staff. I’ll think about the contributions of each individual player that I’ve had a chance to coach.”
VCU coach Mike Rhoades spoke frankly of the events in the second half that contributed to his team’s demise.
“The second half, we just – (it was) very uncharacteristic of us, but we lost our composure there and they made a run there that really got them going. That had a lot to do with the result, for sure,” said Rhoades.
“So as much as this stinks right now, I’m very proud of … a lot of people counted us out and never thought we’d be in this position,” added Rhoades. “I told the guys this time last year that, if we really work and put the program and the team first, great things are going to happen, and throughout the year they really did. I’m proud of these guys for that.”
Malik Crowfield led VCU with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting. De’Riante Jenkins added 10, despite hitting just 4-of-16 shots. Guard Marcus Evans struggled through a bone bruise, contributing just six points on 1-for-7 from the field.
“Marcus got the ball moving a little bit,” said Rhoades. “But it wasn’t there for him like you’ve seen throughout most of the year. It’s tough, but he wanted to make sure he was with his guys, and we wanted his presence out there and his experience out there, and that’s how it goes.”
UCF limited VCU to just 31.1 percent (19-for-61) from the floor, with 6-of-26 three-point tries (23.1 percent) finding the mark.
Taylor scored 15 to lead UCF and all scorers. Guard Aubrey Dawkins added 14, and Fall produced a double-double (13 points, 18 boards). Fall added five blocks, as his presence altered shots all night and aided UCF to a 34-24 advantage on points in the paint.
“Obviously, we had the size advantage,” said Fall. “I think we pretty much have the size advantage over anything we’re going to play against. We took advantage of it, and my teammates trusted me. I was out there being aggressive, just like I’m supposed to do every night and just trying to make plays for us to win the ball game.”
“Tacko is 7-foot-6,” said VCU’s Isaac Vann. “I mean, some of those shots that we usually get at the rim is kind of hard to get those with him down there. We got some good open looks from three. We just couldn’t knock them down tonight.”
Fall and his teammates will now get a look at Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Duke. The Knights and Blue Devils will face off in Sunday night’s first second-round matchup in Columbia. Tip time is scheduled for 5:15.
Postgame Press Conference