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UCF pulls off huge upset over No. 3 Kansas in Big 12 home debut

No. 3 Kansas just could not get rid of the pesky UCF Knights basketball team Wednesday night. UCF pulled off its biggest victory in program history with a shocking 65-60 victory over the Jayhawks, but the biggest talk after the game came courtesy of the UCF fans.

Many of the 9,469 bodies in attendance at Addition Financial Arena stormed the court as the clock hit zeroes, and the party was on following UCF’s Big 12 home debut. The crowd was on its feet and loud the entire way, and it energized the Knights.

“Man, the court-storming was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that,” UCF guard Jaylin Sellers said. “I kinda got up out of there. I just went to the locker room. I’ve never seen that many people around me like that.”

It was a team effort that had coach Johnny Dawkins beaming. He wanted his team to keep its composure Wednesday, and it did.

“I’ve seen it like this on several occasions over the years,” Dawkins said of the fans, “so I know it has a chance to be special, this environment. This is probably the entertainment capital of the world, definitely in our country. … We want to be one of the attractions.

“It was electric. The energy and enthusiasm in the building is why we won. That’s what we’ve talked about. We have to do this together. Our community came out and they rallied behind us.”

Dawkins was caught on video by the Knights video crew and posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) after the game @ucfknights:

Darius Johnson hit a pair of free throws with 14.8 seconds left before Kansas missed two desperation 3-pointers as time ran out.

“Obviously we’re super excited,” Johnson said, “but, you know, we’re not shocked. We always know we can be able to compete at a high level. Moving forward we need to continue to work hard and continue to practice at a high level.”

It was the highest-ranked team UCF has ever beaten. The Knights beat No. 4 UConn 68-63 in 2011 in the Battle of Atlantis. The Knights also defeated No. 6 Houston 69-64 in 2019, followed by a 58-55 victory over No. 19 Cincinnati.

“We kept believing, and our guys kept fighting,” Dawkins said. “We got off to a really good start in the game. They have a championship pedigree. A championship program. Great coach. And I feel like guys just kept fighting.”

Johnson finished with 17 points, Sellers had 18 and Ibrahima Diallo had 13 points and played tremendous defense to lead the Knights.

UCF’s 7-footer Diallo was blanketing Kansas 7-foot-2 center Hunter Dickinson all night, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and putting shots over top of Dickinson’s outstretched arms. Dickinson struggled on defense with Diallo and picked up his fourth foul with 1:52 remaining. Dickinson managed just 12 points. He came into the game as the Big 12’s leading scorer at 19.3 points per game.

“I loved it. The crowd was so exciting and we needed to give them something,” Diallo said.

Diallo hit a short baseline jumper for a 59-57 edge with three minutes left and the Knights maintained that lead the rest of the way.

“I needed this one and there was something I needed to prove,” said Diallo, a native of Senegal. “We work the same thing every day in practice. My teammates trust me and they give me the ball, so I have to [convert].”

It was a far cry from the Knights’ performance in their Big 12 opener at Kansas State on Saturday, a 77-52 loss.

UCF used a variation of defenses, throwing an uncharacteristic zone at the Jayhawks, as well as a match-up zone and its customary man-to-man, even stretching it full-court at times. UCF collected 8 steals and forced 18 Kansas turnovers. The Knights frustrated the Jayhawks to the tune of them shooting just 32% from the field in the second half, including 3 of 11 from 3-point range, 6 of 18 overall beyond the arc.

“I thought it was important for us to mix it up,” Dawkins said.

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. said the defense was a difference.

“We turned the ball over at a high rate,” McCullar. said. “That leads to easy baskets for the other team. We have to take care of the ball better.”

Kansas coach Bill Self said he enjoyed the atmosphere, despite his team losing.

“They’ve got a talented bunch,” Self said of UCF. “I loved [the atmosphere]. … Can they beat anybody in our league in this building? Absolutely they can. … [especially] if the fans do their job like they did tonight.

“There’s no understating that they were better than us. On the flip side, we weren’t very good.”

McCullar led the Jayhawks with 16 points and he said he was not surprised with the competitive level the UCF players provided.

“It’s the Big 12. Every away game is going to be a tough environment,” McCullar said. “It was a big crowd tonight .”

UCF came alive in the second half, surging to a 50-44 lead with a 21-7 run in the first nine minutes. It seemed that every Knights player had a piece in the turnabout. Sellers and Shemarri Allen were making plays all over, Johnson was burying 3s, Diallo was a force in the paint and C.J. Walker was applying some feisty defense. .

There were times when it appeared Kansas would run away with this game, but UCF kept clawing back.

In the first three minutes of the game, UCF had everybody fired up. After missing their first two shots, the Knights maintained possession with a pair of offensive rebounds, culminating in a 3-pointer from Sellers. UCF hit three straight baskets and led the Jayhawks 7-0, prompting a timeout by Self.

Three minutes later, the game was tied 7-7, and Kansas (13-2, 2-1 Big 12) began its roll and eventually led by 16 points.

UCF (10-4, 1-1) did not surrender. The Knights kept fighting. In the first half, every time it appeared as if the Jayhawks were about to run away, UCF would fight back. Trailing 23-12 with 9:05 left before halftime, UCF got a shot-clock-beating 3-pointer from Sellers and the crowd lit up again.

On the ensuing KU possession, Walker came up with a steal and he raced down the court for a breakaway layup, but KU’s Nick TImberlake tracked him down and hammered him before the shot. The foul caused a bit of a dust-up under the basket and nearly into the seats as security quickly rallied to control the situation. UCF’s Thierno Sylla came off the bench during the altercation and was ejected from the game.

UCF got within 23-17, but KU ripped off another run of eight straight points and threatened to pull away again, 35-19 with 3:44 left in the half.

But back stormed UCF with its own 10-0 run and the Knights trailed just 37-29 at the break.

“We knew we couldn’t get it all back in one possession,” Dawkins said. “So what we wanted to do was chip away, chip away. And I thought we did that by halftime, and we carried that momentum into the second half.”

Chris Hays covers high school and college football and college football recruiting. You can find him on X @OC_ChrisHays and on Instagram @OS_ChrisHays. He can be reached vis email at chays@orlandosentinel.com.