Siz­zling Knights thrilled to play after long lay­off, set to host East Carolina

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - SPORTS SUNDAY - By Brian Mur­phy Or­lando Sen­tinel Cor­re­spon­dent

The UCF men’s bas­ket­ball team couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter start to con­fer­ence play.

The Knights are 2-0 in the AAC, cur­rently sit atop the league’s stand­ings thanks to a 12-2 over­all record and notched the program’s first win at UConn last week­end.

Per­haps there is only one thing that would have made this start even sweeter: more games.

Be­tween their Christ­mas break and this week’s bye, the Knights have taken the court just twice since Dec. 21. The time off has al­lowed play­ers to heal any ail­ments and work on dif­fer­ent facets of their game. But if coach Johnny Dawkins had a choice, he’d rather not have to wait eight days to build upon that vic­tory over the Huskies.

“I think once you get into the rhythm of playing, you want to keep playing,” Dawkins said Fri­day. “…We had our bye week this week. That’s how the sched­ule has fallen, and you have to play the cards that you’re dealt. For us, we have to stay fo­cused, use this week to keep get­ting bet­ter and pre­pare for this week­end.”

This week­end holds Sun­day’s home game ver­sus the East Carolina Pi­rates (8-7, 1-2 in con­fer­ence). They earned the at­ten­tion of ev­ery team in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence when they knocked off the reign­ing AAC reg­u­lar-sea­son and con­fer­ence cham­pi­ons, Cincin­nati, on Jan. 5. The re­sult cer­tainly caught the eye of UCF se­nior guard B.J. Tay­lor.

“As you saw [last] week­end, any­body can beat any­body,” he said. “So for us, we have to come out ev­ery game locked in and know that this game is go­ing to be a fight.”

ECU is be­ing led of­fen­sively by sopho­more Shawn Wil­liams and fresh­man for­ward Jay­den Gard­ner.

Wil­liams was the con­fer­ence’s rookie-of-theyear last sea­son and has found his form after be­ing suspended for the first five games. Wil­liams nailed four 3-point­ers ver­sus the Bearcats and has reg­is­tered 16 3-point­ers in his last five out­ings.

Mean­while, Gard­ner has aver­aged a dou­ble-dou­ble with 20.5 points and 10 re­bounds dur­ing his past 10 games. But what stands out most to Dawkins is the fresh­man’s phys­i­cal­ity and abil­ity to get to the freethrow line. Gard­ner is draw­ing the fourth-most fouls per 40 min­utes of any player in Divi­sion I at 8.2.

“That’s im­pres­sive for a fresh­man to be that good; prob­a­bly get­ting al­most 10 free throws a night says a lot,” Dawkins said of Gard­ner. “Prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter fresh­men in our con­fer­ence and def­i­nitely a great com­peti­tor.”

The Pi­rates will carry an 0-5 road record into CFE Arena on Sun­day. Turn­ing that mark to 0-6 is very im­por­tant to the Knights, ac­cord­ing to Tay­lor.

“We al­ways talk about tak­ing care of home court,” he said. “That’s huge for us. We want to win in front of our home fans. This is our gym, so we’ve got to pro­tect it.”

Aubrey hon­ored

UCF ju­nior guard Aubrey Dawkins earned con­fer­ence player-of-the­week honors for the second time this sea­son for what he did last week dur­ing games against Temple and UConn. Specif­i­cally, Dawkins aver­aged 16.5 points and 63 per­cent shoot­ing dur­ing those con­tests. The high­light of his week was a 16-point second half at UConn that helped the Knights pull away from the Huskies.

“Hope­fully it’s not the last,” he said about be­ing a now two-time AAC Player of the Week.

Dawkins has been an ex­tremely valu­able cog in the Knights’ of­fense. De­spite not playing for more than two years fol­low­ing his trans­fer to UCF in 2016 and an in­jury, Dawkins has tal­lied dou­ble-digit points in ev­ery game this sea­son, cul­mi­nat­ing with a sea­son­high 23 points at UConn.

“As a coach, I’m re­ally happy for him. I know what he’s gone through,” said Johnny Dawkins, Aubrey’s father. “Sit­ting out two years is re­ally dif­fi­cult for any­one, but he’s done a great job of bounc­ing back. He has worked ex­tremely hard, and I’m just happy for him to get re­warded for his hard work.”

Aubrey Dawkins talked early in the sea­son about knock­ing off any rust that had built up due to his trans­fer in 2016 and a ma­jor shoul­der in­jury in 2017. He said Fri­day that he doesn’t know when the last of the rust dis­ap­peared, but it’s well gone now.

“I’m happy it’s gone,” he said. “I like where I’m playing at right now. I like the way my game feels, and I like the con­ti­nu­ity in the of­fense that there is. It’s mak­ing it eas­ier for all of us.”

JES­SICA HILL/AP

UCF's Aubrey Dawkins, right, has been a strong leader for the Knights after sit­ting out the last two sea­sons be­cause of NCAA trans­fer rules and a shoul­der in­jury.

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