Slow start sends UCF to second-round loss to BYU in Big 12 tourney

UCF coach Johnny Dawkins warned his team before the start of the Big 12 tournament, that they must avoid slow starts.

It’s a trend that has haunted the Knights throughout much of the regular season: poor shooting early has led to furious second-half comebacks that have sometimes fallen short.

On Wednesday, it was more of the same. UCF found itself down 14-0 as No. 20 BYU connected on four early 3-pointers to build an insurmountable lead and win, 87-73, in the second round of the Big 12 tournament at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo.

“We have got to be better at executing defensively,” Dawkins said. “We gave up too many threes and too many free throws, two areas we emphasized we wanted to contain.”

“We had some good fortune and some good ball movement,” BYU coach Mark Pope said of his team’s hot start. “The guys came out on the floor on attack from the very beginning of the game. Playing on our toes is something we talk about every day.”

UCF guard Darius Johnson finished with a game-high 32 points to go along with three rebounds and three assists; Antwaan Jones had 13 points and Jaylin Sellers had 12.

“I was just taking my open looks,” Johnson said. “I felt it late in the first half and it just carried over into the second half.”

BYU came into the game averaging 11 3-pointers per game and finished with 14, with guards Dallin Hall and Richi Saunders knocking down three apiece.

UCF never led in the game, falling behind by as many as 18 points. The Knights went on a 10-2 run, helped by 15 combined points from forward C.J. Walker and Johnson, pulling within three at 59-56 with 13:10 left in the second half. But the Cougars would roll off 10 straight points to push their advantage to double digits throughout the rest of the game.

“Darius Johnson was a massive problem tonight making shots,” Pope said. “He made difficult shots that were incredible. And it all started from the transition.”

Fifth-seeded BYU (23-9) advances to the quarterfinals, where it will face No. 4 Texas Tech on Thursday (12:30 p.m., ESPN2).

Twelfth-seeded UCF (17-15) must now wait until Sunday to discover its postseason future.

The Big 12 is projected to have nine teams make the NCAA Tournament’s 68-team field, but the Knights don’t figure into being one of those teams. They will likely qualify for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) as one of the conference’s automatic qualifiers.

Changes to the NIT’s selection process guarantees spots for the two highest-ranked teams (based on NET) from each of the six conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southern) not to make the NCAA tourney.

The Knights entered Wednesday’s game at No. 60 in the NET rankings.

“I would love for our guys to continue to play,” Dawkins said. I’ve enjoyed coaching this group, and we have a lot of basketball ahead of us, so hopefully, we will have an opportunity to continue.”

Cincinnati (19-13) ranks higher (43) and could join its former American Athletic Conference partner in the NIT field, as could Kansas State, which is considered an NCAA tourney bubble team. The Wildcats (70 NET) need a pair of wins in the tournament to lock up an NCAA spot.

Pope is convinced the Knights should be playing somewhere this postseason.

“It took them a minute to find themselves in the nonconference for sure, but this team is incredibly well-coached,” he said. “This is a good team. I’m so grateful we don’t have to play them again. I have nightmares about this team, actually, because they scored 15 points in the last minute of our last game.”