Knights edge out Golden Eagles 60-58, Sykes scores clutch free throws

ORLANDO — Isaiah Sykes was 0-4 shooting free throws for the night when he went to the line with the game tied 58-58 and 14.6 seconds left to play.

Sykes made both free throws as the University of Central Florida Knights defeated the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 60-58 at the UCF Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 6.

“It means a lot just knowing he is a clutch player,” said UCF senior forward Keith Clanton about Sykes’ late free throws. “I know one thing he doesn’t lack is confidence, so I know going to the line he felt he was going to make both and he went up there, stepped up, and did it.”

Sykes finished the game with 12 points, eight rebounds, and four assists, while teammate Tristan Spurlock led all scorers with 18 points and added seven rebounds of his own.

“He just impacts the game,” said UCF head coach Donnie Jones of Sykes. “He’s just a winner and knows how to win, and it’s hard to draw those things in the huddle or teach guys to play that way.”

Southern Miss opened up the game with back-to-back three pointers from Jerrold Brooks before UCF head coach Donnie Jones called a timeout for the Knights, who were down 6-0 just over a minute into the game.

“I’m really proud of our kids,” said Jones after the game. “We bounced back after a tough loss at Marshall. Our kids have done this all year long, we’ve had some tough losses and we’ve come back and responded.”

Southern Miss used the two three pointers as part of a 15-5 run during the first five minutes of the game. The Knights answered with a 6-0 run of their own to cut the Golden Eagles lead to 15-11 with 12:50 left in the first half.

Keith Clanton scored his first point of the game with 5:43 remaining in the first half when he made the first of two free throws to cut the Southern Miss lead to 25-23.

UCF used a 10-4 run during the final five minutes of the first half to give themselves a 33-31 lead going into halftime.

“I think we’re just starting to get it now,” said UCF forward Tristan Spurlock after the game. “The younger guys are stepping up and making rotations, the older guys are starting to play different positions. I think we are all starting to know what our rotations are.”

Keith Clanton got his first field goal of the game with 16:26 remaining in the second half to tie the score at 38-38.

Clanton finished the game with six points, nine rebounds, and seven blocks, while going 4-8 from the free throw line. With his nine rebounds Clanton tied the UCF record for rebounds in a career.

The Golden Eagles used a 16-10 run midway through the second half to take a 47-43 lead over the Knights with ten minutes left to play in regulation.

The Knights went on a 10-5 run during the final five minutes of the game, before Sykes made his two game-winning free throws.

“He’s come a long way,” said Jones about Sykes’ free throw shooting. “He went to the line when it counted, we had to put the ball in his hand. I’ve still got confidence in him to make plays and he made some big plays down the stretch.”

Southern Miss had one last chance to win the game when Neil Watson took a three-pointer as time expired that bounced in-and-out of the rim.

Jonathan Mills was the Golden Eagles leading scorer with 15 points and added nine rebounds for Southern Miss.

UCF freshman Matt Williams had 11 points for the Knights off the bench, while going 3-5 from behind the three-point line.

“Coming out coach Jones told me the way to get on the floor is by defense,” said Williams about coming off the bench. “Don’t worry about offense, just play defense and rebound and everything will take care of itself.”

With the win the Knights improve their record to 16-6 and 6-2 in Conference USA. UCF’s next game will be Saturday, Feb. 9 at home against East Carolina University.