ORLANDO ― Its postseason resume still in need of thick polish, USF arrived at CFE Arena on Wednesday seeking that elusive first quality win.
Five-and-a-half minutes in, the Bulls still were seeking a quality possession.
Overwhelmed at times by UCF 7-foot-6 senior Tacko Fall, the Bulls watched UCF score the game’s first 13 points en route to a 78-65 loss before an announced crowd of 4,719.
“I would say it’s the first time all year long that, for lack of a better term, we laid an egg," Bulls coach Brian Gregory said. "But sometimes if you say that, you’re discrediting what Central Florida did. They played really well and we weren’t able to match that tonight.”
The defeat snapped the Bulls’ five-game win streak and extended the Knights’ win streak in this series to seven games. The Bulls (17-7, 7-5 AAC), whose recent surge elicited postseason talk among part of their fan base, still haven’t defeated a team in the top 65 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings.
They’ll get another chance to do so Saturday at home against Temple, but will have to come out much sharper.
USF committed four turnovers in the first three minutes Wednesday, and didn’t make its first field goal until T.J. Lang’s 3-pointer with 14:26 to play in the first half.
Nearly 13 minutes into the game, Fall, among the 40 tallest living humans in the world (according to UCF), single-handedly was outscoring the Bulls, 11-10. Defensively, his mere presence was deterring USF’s dribble penetration.
“We drive to the lane a lot as a team," said Bulls 7-foot freshman Michael Durr, who fouled out with nary a point or rebound in nine minutes of action. "So with Tacko’s size we had to try something different, so we were slow getting into things.”
But Gregory’s strategy ― use the Bulls’ frontcourt depth to tie up Fall and get him to the free-throw line ― gradually started working. Fall finished 6-for-14 from the stripe in the first half.
Problem was, the Bulls were no better from the line (7-for-16) in that same span, shooting only 28.6 percent (8-for-28) from the floor in the first 20 minutes.
Still, their 19-point deficit gradually diminished.
David Collins’ 3-pointer sparked an 8-2 Bulls run that cut the Knights’ lead to 35-22. The Bulls had a chance to trim that lead to single digits just before halftime, but a missed Laquincy Rideau jumper was followed by UCF junior Terrell Allen’s 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, giving the Knights (18-5, 8-3) a 39-25 advantage.
The Bulls’ deficit never fell below 13 the rest of the way. A 14-2 UCF run early in the second half pushed the Knights’ lead to 26 and essentially sealed things.
“I thought we muddied it up enough at the end of the first half to get (the deficit) within a workable number, because we’ve been in those situations before," Gregory said. "But we just weren’t able to get it over the hump.”
Fall finished with 21 points, falling one rebound shy of a double-double. His five blocks nearly doubled his season average (2.64), which leads the American Athletic Conference.
“You can’t let him get the ball deep, you can’t let him get the ball over the top of you, and they were able to do both those," Gregory said. "Obviously he was a force, and I thought he was every bit a force on the defensive end as he was on the offensive end.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.