ORLANDO, Fla. — UCF guard A.J. Davis dreamed about playing at Madison Square Garden.
Now, he can check it off his bucket list.
The Knights advanced to the National Invitation Tournament semi-finals, fighting off Illinois, 68-58. The Fighting Illini led for only one minute and 53 seconds during a game in which they shot an anemic 30.6 percent.
“Every game we are just trying to not give up threes and layups (and) make guys shoot tough twos,” UCF center Tacko Fall said. “We work on it every day.”
The Matt Williams Show began at 7:00 p.m. sharp. The senior sharpshooter from Orlando swished 3 three-pointers to charge UCF ahead, 11-3.
Illinois was continuously deterred by the presence of Knights’ 7’6″ center Tacko Fall. The UCF anchor played a huge role in allowing his squad to take a double-figures lead at 17-6.
“He’s such a unique player,” said Illinois interim head coach Jamall Waller of Fall. “I knew it would take an adjustment for our guys.”
The Fighting Illini persisted to stay close early. Sophomore Jalen Coleman-Lands found his shooting legs with back-to-back triples at the 12-minute mark, pulling Illinois back within eight.
Though, nine consecutive UCF points marched the Knights to a 17-point advantage. Spark-plug Chad Brown had his fingerprint on the contest. His energy was imperative in getting the sold-out crowd of 10,011 on their feet and cheering.
“It’s one of the best environments I have been in as a player or coach,” said UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins of the fans. “I love it when you can’t hear yourself think.
“They’ve created a great environment and it’s been that way just not tonight. We have had unbelievable crowds where it’s just very difficult for the opposing team. And that’s what you want to have.”
Despite trailing 32-15, Illinois stole momentum going into halftime. Senior Malcolm Hill, who has scored over 1,800 points and grabbed more than 600 rebounds in his career, went on a personal 4-0 burst to silence the crowd.
However, “The Nightmare” was soon back to cheering.
After possessing a 34-19 halftime lead, UCF proceeded to take full control. Fall excited the crowd into a frenzy with a monster dunk and two of his 10 points.
The Knights seized their biggest advantage of the contest with a B.J. Taylor three-pointer, which made the score 46-28.
Yet, similar to the first half, the Fighting Illini refused to surrender. Moreover, Hill netted 17 of his game-high 29 points in the final 9:23 to single-handedly pull Illinois within single-digits.
“The biggest thing I told him going into the tournament was to cut loose,” said Walker of Hill. “He played like a senior today. He played like he didn’t want to go home and wanted to go to New York.”
With 3:14 remaining in regulation, three made Hill free throws dulled the once mighty edge to six. But, UCF never allowed their Big Ten opponent to come any closer.
The Knights made 11-of-14 attempts from the charity stripe to seal the win and propel the first sell-out in CFE Arena history to storm the court.
“It was great. I didn’t expect them to do the same thing they did during Cincinnati,” Fall said. “As soon as the game was over, everybody was on the court and everybody was jumping around happy. It just makes us feel good to see all those people supporting us.”
For the first time this season, Illinois’ superstar Malcolm Hill, despite scoring over 25 points, was unable to will his team to victory. The Fairview Heights, Illinois, native finished with 1.846 points during his four years in Champaign.
No other Fighting Illini recorded double-figures points on the night. Jalen Coleman-Lands had 9 points on 3 three-pointers.
The historic first season of Johnny Dawkins’ UCF coaching career will continue thanks to a group effort. Matt Williams produced 16 points while Tacko Fall posted a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. The backcourt duo of B.J. Taylor and A.J. Davis scored 17 and 16 points, respectively, while carrying the responsibility of making free throws in the final moments.
On March 28, 24-11 UCF will face 22-15 TCU in a battle of NIT four seeds. The showdown will be played at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
— P. Wesner