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UCF’s late rally comes up short as USF advances in NIT showdown

UCF had hoped to make a bang this postseason, but the Knights went out with a groan.

Another poor start led to a double-digit deficit that UCF (17-16) could not overcome as USF (25-7) hung on for an 83-77 win in Tuesday’s first round of the National Invitational Tournament at Addition Financial Arena.

The Knights suffered their third consecutive loss to their rivals, the Bulls, dating back to last season.

“Playing USF for the first time [this season] and seeing them on film did not do justice to how strong they are offensively and their ability to shoot the basketball,” said UCF coach Johnny Dawkins. Seeing a team make nine threes in the first half … they did a really good job of moving the ball and playing off each other. They have a lot of guys out there who can knock down open shots, and they found themselves open, and they made us pay.”

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UCF seemed discombobulated throughout much of the first half, shooting just 42% from the floor. The team was also plagued by bad passes, turnovers, and a lax transitional defense that allowed USF to go on a 14-3 run, which helped the Bulls build a double-digit advantage at 27-14.

South Florida hit nine 3-pointers in the first half, none more damaging than Selton Miguel’s 30-footer at the buzzer, which pushed the Bulls’ lead to 49-35 at the half. USF would finish with 13.

UCF trailed by double-digits in 16 of its 33 games this season.

“Coach instills that confidence in us and we instill the confidence in each other,” USF guard Joe Placer said of the team’s long-range shooting. “Ball movement, ball energy and just trusting each other. We always talk about it, making the right play and playing for each other, and we tend to shoot the ball pretty well.”

USF shot 50% from the field, including 13 of 24 from 3-point range.

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Guard Jaylin Sellers sparked a furious second-half rally as UCF sliced a 15-point lead to 63-61 with 10 minutes left. The junior guard scored 11 of his game-high 21 points in the first 10 minutes as the Knights went on a 20-8 run.

But that was as close as UCF would get, as USF connected on 9 consecutive free throws to put the game away.

If you needed any reminder, this was a rivalry game, the teams got into a scuffle with 5:28 left as players scrambled for a loose ball. Officials quickly broke it up, and after a video review that lasted several minutes, a foul was assessed to UCF’s Shemarri Allen, and two technical fouls were issued to Allen and USF’s Corey Walker Jr.

Another scuffle occurred with 24.5 seconds remaining, resulting in two more technical fouls: one on UCF’s Sellers and one on USF’s Kasean Pryor.

Bulls coach Amir Abdur-Rahim would love to see the rivalry series continue at some point.

“I think it’s great for both teams,” said Abdur-Rahim. “It’s an opportunity for both teams to get a quality win and for our fan bases to see great basketball. So it’s a great opportunity for the state of Florida.”

USF advances to play the winner of Villanova/VCU this weekend.

Fans from both schools go into the festivities with chants of “USF” and “UCF” echoing throughout the arena 30 minutes before tipoff. The bands also got into the spirit, playing dueling songs throughout the warmups.

UCF got some good news before the game. The school announced that Sellers, a transfer from Ball State, would return next season. The 6-foot-4, 196-pound Sellers led the Knights in scoring with 15.6 points per game.

“Johnny Dawkins is probably the best coach I’ve ever life,” said Sellers. “Him been believing in me … I never want to play for another coach in college basketball ever.”

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Dawkins has one year remaining on his contract and is confident in his future with the program.

“I expect to be back here. I have loved coaching UCF since Day 1,” said Dawkins. “I put my whole heart into this university because they allowed me to be the coach here. “The administration … I think everyone believes in me and what we’re doing here.”

Matt Murschel can be reached at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com