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UCF reaches first AAC final after shooting fest with Cincinnati

UCF prevailed over Cincinnati, 66-58 in the second AAC semifinal in a game that reflected the similarity of the two teams. The match up featured eight lead changes and six ties, and neither team led by more than five points until late in the fourth quarter.

Both the Knights and the Bearcats are guard-oriented, penetrating, athletic squads who play physical defense. The tallest starter on each team is 6-0. Both teams played zone defense in this game almost exclusively, but both harass the ball-handler deep in the backcourt. Each team has just two players averaging double-digit scoring, and no dominant rebounder.

As a result, the game was tied at 34 after one half, and UCF led by just three, 46-43 after three periods.

Cincinnati stayed with the Knights by hitting an uncharacteristic six threes in the first half. One difference in the game was a second half defensive adjustment to deny the outside shot, and the Bearcats were just 2-9 from beyond the arc in the second half.

UCF ultimately won the fourth period by crashing the offensive boards, continuing to shoot with success, and by hitting two Hail-Mary threes that opened a nine-point lead with under a minute left. Cincinnati missed a half-dozen short jumpers in the final four minutes that allowed their opponents to escape with a win.

The Knight’s bench contributed 27 points, to the Bearcat’s 9. Sophomore Masseny Kaba had 13 of those. Kay Kay Wright contributed 21 of UCF’s points, but seven other players scored.

Knights coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has played a deep rotation all year, and attributes the team’s success to depth.

“We’ve been talking about strength in numbers all year,” she said. “And the greatest part of our team is that we’re very selfless. Nobody cares who gets the credit. Our strength in numbers is obviously going to be big obviously for tomorrow, too.”

IImar’I Thomas had 16 points and eight rebounds for Cincinnati, and Sam Rogers contributed 13 points, including three of the Bearcat’s eight threes.

Coach Michelle Clark-Heard was philosophical about the loss.

“It was a close ball game,” she said. “And then in the fourth quarter, they made some tough shots and we didn’t get stops. But we’ve got to grow and learn from this.”

UCF moves to their first tournament final game Monday night at 7 p.m., when they will face No. 1 seed UConn.

“I think the key will be ball movement,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Just being patient. We want to go so quick, and get in transition. That’s what we want to do, is play fast. But you can’t win if you run with UConn. We’ve gotten better over the last four or five games just being patient and getting really good shots, instead of just taking the first quick shot.”