A dark ‘Knight’Published 8:57pm Saturday, January 7, 2012
GREENVILLE — The lights were on in Minges Coliseum but the Pirates couldn’t seem to find the basket as they fell 81-63 to Central Florida for their second straight loss.
Just one game after making 52 percent of its shots in a 78-76 defeat at the hands of Southern Miss in its Conference USA opener Wednesday, East Carolina (9-6, 0-2) shot a chilly 36.7 percent against the Knights (12-3, 2-0) leaving the Pirates still searching for their first league win of the year.
East Carolina had no answer for a tremendous UCF frontcourt that allowed it to outscore the Pirates 50-30 in the paint and hold a 46-29 advantage on the glass.
“We jus got whipped, there’s no way around it,” East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo said. “Physically we weren’t even in the area code tonight. They’re big and physical and we had matchup problems, obviously.”
The Knights started a trio up front that consisted of sturdy 6-9, 245-pound center Keith Clanton, monstrous 6-8, 260-pound power forward Josh Crittle and athletic 6-5 210-pound small forward Isaiah Sykes and together the trio accounted for 40 points and 18 boards. Sykes, a sophomore, tallied a team-high 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead UCF.
Clanton posted 16 points and six boards while Marcus Jordan, son of NBA legend Michael Jordan, scored 12.
While the Knights big men certainly made their presence felt, it was A.J. Rompza, the smallest guy on the court, who made the biggest difference in the game. The 5-9, 170-pound senior, who missed the first 12 games of the season due to an NCAA-mandated suspension, sliced and dice the ECU defense for 16 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
“Rompza controlled the game, he’s terrific. He makes them a different team now that he’s back,” Lebo said. “He controlled the game for 40 minutes. To me he was the best player on the court.”
Pirates point guard Miguel Paul looked pretty good himself and for most of the night was the only one on the team that could score with any kind of consistency as he made 50 percent of his shots to tally a game-high 21 points.
After trailing by as many as 14 in the first half, Paul drilled back-to-back deep threes with under two minutes left to help the Pirates close the deficit to 38-31 heading into halftime.
That momentum never made it to the second half as UCF ripped off a 19-4 run to take a 57-35 lead midway through the half.
East Carolina showed signs of a potential comeback when it was able to cut the Knights’ lead to 59-48 after an Erin Straughn put-back basket but that momentum was killed when Paul drew a technical foul for trash-talking with a UCF player.
“We made an attempt to make the run but we had the bonehead play with the technical foul that crushed anything that we had going,” Lebo said. “It was just disastrous.”
Paul felt that whistle was undeserved.
“We did a little talking and I guess the refs wanted to clean it up a little bit. It’s just the game of basketball,” Paul said. “Everybody on (UCF) is cool, I don’t have no enemies but when it gets heated like that sometimes you’re going to start talking and I guess the ref thought we were doing a little bit too much talking; but I don’t think I deserved it.”
Playing against a long and athletic zone, ECU struggle to get any kind of points in the paint. Kemp was ECU’s next highest-scorer 14 points, eight of which came from the free throw line, but the junior shot 3-for-10 from the floor. Morrow was the only other Pirate to reach double-digits in scoring as he produced 11 points an six rebounds.
“They’re a good team and they’re huge down on that backline when they played zone,” Morrow said. “It’s kind of tough but I think we just had a tough night. Nights like this happen but we’re already looking forward to next Saturday (when ECU plays Tulsa).”