Knights get ugly win as Clanton finally gets first start
by Andrew Kennedy
UCF beat Bethune Cookman 63-50 Saturday night thanks to some late clutch play by freshman Keith Clanton.
The highest rated recruit to ever come to UCF finally got his first start of the season after a solid performance in UCF’s last game against Notre Dame where he led the team with 14 points and seven rebounds while matched up with one of the best forwards in the country in Luke Harangody (29 points and 7 rebounds in that game).
Down the stretch against Bethune Cookman, Clanton came up huge with a driving layup off an isolation look and then followed that up with two big defensive stops, a block with 1:11 left and a steal with 55 seconds to play, to help UCF get the close win.
But the Knights shouldn’t have needed those big plays from Clanton. They should have killed an overmatched Bethune Cookman team. This isn’t the first time that UCF has played down to an opponent.
The last two wins for the Knights came against Albany (76-72) and Newberry (80-62). While a win is still a win, Knights fans shouldn’t get too comfortable just yet with a 7-2 start.
The bright side is that while UCF may play down to opponents at times, they can also play above their usual play other times.
The Knights rose to the occasions to beat both Massachusetts (84-67) and Auburn (84-74) handily earlier in the season and then battled with Notre Dame to a 41-41 tie in the first half before falling 90-72 to the Irish.
So in a sense, UCF has been a little tough to predict this season. They’ve had games where they have executed their offense at a high level and shot for a high percentage and then games where it’s hard to tell where and how they’re going to score the ball.
The move to start Clanton was one that was long overdue and should get the Knights off to more consistent starts. It also gives UCF a chance to bring a player like P.J. Gaynor off the bench, which is a perfect fit for his style of play (high energy and hustle plays).
While Clanton is starting to emerge as UCF’s best player, his progression this season hasn’t been without a few stumbling blocks while he has searched for the best possible way to fit in with his teammates.
He has been somewhat of a turnover machine leading the team with 30 (3.3 per game) on the season. That’s typical of a freshman no matter how good one is and is something that Clanton will surely cut down upon as the season continues.
Clanton is starting to find a rhythm on offense and starting to see how he can get his looks. Head coach Kirk Speraw has used him very effectively in isolated positions at the high post, as well as giving him the freedom to bring the ball up court in transition on other occasions.
But where Clanton continues to impress is on the defensive end of the floor. Clanton had five blocks in the Bethune Cookman game and leads the team in that department with 18 (2.0 per game) on the season. He is also the team’s leading defensive rebounder on the season.
With Clanton now in the starting lineup it will give UCF chance to play their best two rebounders (Diakite’s the other) with center A.J. Tyler who doesn’t do too good of a job getting boards. This also frees Tyler to venture away from the basket on offense where he has developed a deadly midrange game and has been efficient crashing the offensive glass for rebounds.
With Clanton and Tyler emerging, Dave Diakite and Isaac Sosa have taken a kind of back seat with both in minor slumps. Once everyone starts to come around together for this young team, there’s no telling how far they can make a run in Conference-USA.
The Knights have been up and down to start their 7-2 season, but if you look closely things are definitely starting to fall into place just in time for a tough stretch of the season to end non-conference play.
UCF will play next at rival South Florida on Dec. 16 then they will travel to play at Connecticut on Dec. 20.
Photo courtesy of www.ucfsports.com.