MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- UCF relied on stifling defensive pressure and late freethrows to claim a 64-54 win over UAB Thursday night at the FedEx Forum, advancing to the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament for the first time in school history.
"We're excited about the win," UCF coach Donnie Jones said after the game that concluded after midnight on the East Coast. "It's the first time in our school's history we've been to the semifinals of this tournament, so it's a great step for the program here today. And really proud of the team. I thought it was a great team effort here tonight. Obviously we had a lot of guys step up and do some very good things. We beat a very good UAB team."
The No. 4 seed Knights (22-9) shot 59.3 percent in the first half and amassed a 36-29 halftime lead, but both UCF and No. 5 seed UAB (15-16) struggled to score in the second half. UCF only scored one field goal during the final nine minutes of the contest. The Knights were 7-of-19 from the field for 36.8 percent in the second half, but the Blazers still had a rougher shooting night. UAB shot 6-of-33 from the field for 18.2 percent.
The Knights offset the poor field-goal shooting with strong shooting from the free-throw line, hitting 13-of-16 freethrows in the second half to secure the victory.
UCF advances to play No. 1 seed Memphis (24-8) Friday at 6:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
The Knights opened the game against UAB playing unselfish basketball, equally sharing the scoring load.
UCF junior Keith Clanton led the Knights with 14 points and seven rebounds, while senior point guard A.J. Rompza and junior guard Marcus Jordan added 12 points apiece. Rompza also had six assists, two steals, four rebounds and one turnover.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Sykes, who suffered a sprained wrist during the Knights' final regular season game against UAB Saturday, played through pain and managed to score 10 points and grab six rebounds in 29 minutes.
When he was asked after the game how his wrist felt, Sykes responded, "It's pretty good. Teammates gave me a lot of confidence. Down the stretch, you don't get a lot of chances like this to come out and play."
Sykes didn't start the game and it was unclear how much he could play on the injured wrist, he knocked down two layups and hit a deep jumper in the first half to help the Knights build their lead.
"Anybody see a shot go down, it gives them a lot of confidence," Sykes said. "Just try not to think about it."
Rompza said the Knights were inspired watching Sykes battle through pain, wincing at times when he passed the ball.
Junior forward Ovie Soko led the Blazers with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while sophomore guard Preston Purifoy added 14 points. The Knights' defense limited senior forward Cameron Moore, the Blazers' star player, six points that all came from freethrows.
UAB struggled without a true point guard in the lineup. Sophomore guard Quincy Taylor tore his anterior cruciate ligament against UCF Saturday and missed the tournament. Without Taylor setting up the offense, the Blazers struggled to earn open shots in the final 10 minutes of the game.
UCF's victory strengthened the Knights' case for a National Invitation Tournament bid. The Knights likely need to win the Conference USA championship to achieve their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, but an NIT invitation is a big step forward for Jones' program. The Knights will learn their postseason fate Sunday night and could potentially host an NIT game as early as Tuesday.
Now UCF shifts its focus to quickly preparing for a big game against powerhouse Memphis on the Tigers' home floor.
UCF and Memphis split their two games during the regular season, with the Knights earning a 68-67 home win over the Tigers Jan. 18 and the Knights suffering an 84-55 loss to the Tigers Feb. 28 at the FedEx Forum.
During Memphis' win over UTEP Thursday, the Tigers used strong defensive pressure and quick transition buckets to pull away from No. 8 seed UTEP (15-17). UTEP claimed a 65-47 win in front of a rowdy home crowd.
Guard Joe Jackson led the Tigers with 17 points, while forward Tarik Black had 15 points and 13 rebounds.
The winner the UCF-Memphis game advances to play the winner of No. 6 seed Marshall's (20-12) game against No. 2 seed Southern Miss (25-7) for the C-USA tournament title. The championship game is Saturday at 11:30 a.m. It will be broadcast on CBS.
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