Central Florida didn’t have it easy in its first game as a ranked team. Its next one might prove just as difficult.
The No. 19 Knights will try to stay unbeaten as they host surging Furman in their Holiday Classic opener Wednesday night.
The Knights (11-0) shot 38.8 percent while second-leading scorer Marcus Jordan nursed a sprained ankle for most of the game. Jordan, though, came off the bench to play the final 15:06 and hit five of six foul shots in the last 38 seconds of a 64-59 win.
With Jordan absent for most of that victory, Issac Sosa scored a team-best 14 points and Keith Clanton was the only other player in double figures with 13 points. Clanton leads the Knights with 16.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
UCF also relied on a defense that’s held opponents to 56.5 points per game on 35.8 percent shooting. The Knights limited Massachusetts to 31.8 percent from the field.
“These guys stayed focused,” first-year coach Donnie Jones said. “It’s been a unique group. They’ve found a way to deal with a lot of things.”
Jones has UCF off to its best start since it was 15-0 in 1979-80 as a Division II program. The Knights are also on their longest win streak since taking 14 in a row Dec. 6, 2003-Jan. 28, 2004, but adding to that run might prove difficult again Wednesday.
Furman (8-2) enters this game searching for its best start since 1979-80, a season that opened with a loss to Central Florida. The Paladins won 15 of 16 after that defeat en route to their most recent NCAA tournament appearance.
This season’s team is riding a five-game win streak after pulling away late for a 91-75 victory over South Carolina on Dec. 22.
Amu Saaka, averaging a team-best 15.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, had 20 points during Furman’s best scoring performance of this season. The senior forward also finished with eight rebounds while helping his team post a 44-26 advantage on the glass.
“I’m just happy for our guys,” coach Jeff Jackson said. “I thought the maturity of our team, at times, took over.”
Furman has averaged 77.6 points on 49.6 percent shooting during its win streak. During their 3-2 start, the Paladins averaged 64.6 points and shot 41.1 percent.
Senior guard Jordan Miller has helped lead that turnaround by averaging 17.4 points over five games this month. He scored 5.4 points per game in the season’s first five contests.
However, senior forward Noah States, averaging a team-best 18.7 points in December, has missed the past two games for undisclosed reasons.
If States is out again, it might hurt Furman’s chances of beating a Top 25 opponent for the first time since knocking off No. 10 East Tennessee State on Feb. 11, 1991.