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UCF returns to form in blowout home win over No. 23 Texas Tech

UCF forward Omar Payne’s two-handed dunk late in the second half against No. 23 Texas Tech almost seemed cathartic.

After so many close losses and with their postseason hopes quickly fading, the Knights needed to take out some frustration — and it seemed right from the start that was the plan against the Red Raiders on Saturday.

UCF (14-12, 5-9 Big 12) was the more physical team, attacking the basket and scoring 32 points in the paint on its way to an impressive 75-61 win at Addition Financial Arena.

It was the first time in program history that the Knights have defeated three ranked teams in a season.

The victory snapped a four-game losing streak dating to Feb. 10.

“This league is unforgiving and so if you don’t find ways to respond right away, it can snowball quickly,” said UCF coach Johnny Dawkins. “It can go either way for you, good or bad, and we had a tough patch. But as tough as it was, it helped us get better in many ways and our guys got more connected.”

Guard Darius Johnson, coming off a career-high 29 points against West Virginia, led all UCF scorers with 16 points while Jaylin Sellers added 15 points. Sellers was 6-of-11 from the floor, a far cry from his 1-of-11 shooting performance in a 77-67 loss to the Mountaineers on Tuesday.

“[Over] the past four games, other teams have imposed their wills on us,” said Johnson, who had 5 assists and 3 rebounds. “We wanted to come out and take the first punch tonight and we did that.”

UCF went on a 20-3 scoring run to finish the game.

“They wore us down with their physicality, size and ability to rotate guys,” said Tech coach Grant McCasland. “They got us on our heels enough and we couldn’t play with the same physicality at the end.”

Dawkins expressed frustration after UCF attempted a season-high 38 3-pointers in the loss to WVU. The Knights did better with their ball movement, setting up the offense and pounding the basketball inside vs. Texas Tech.

“This game was very important for us,” said Dawkins. “We wanted to return to being who we’ve been most of the season. You have to have an identity, which had been our identity most of the season, and we lost it. We lost who we were. We became too much of a perimeter-oriented team, too much of a jump-shooting team. That’s not who we are.”

UCF shot 47% from the field, including 6 of 12 on 3-pointers, but the Knights’ ability to get to the basket in transition played havoc with Texas Tech. Red Raiders big men Warren Washington and Robert Jennings were in foul trouble in the first half, with the 6-foot-7 Jennings fouling out with 4:06 left after scoring 5 points and totaling 4 rebounds.

Guard Darrion Williams led all Texas Tech scorers with 19 points, followed by Kerwin Walton’s 18.

This was their second meeting this season; Texas Tech held on for a 66-59 win on Feb. 10 in Lubbock. UCF never led in the game, trailing by as many as 10 points in the first half before slicing the lead to 1 with 2:07 to go before the Red Raiders went on an 8-2 run to finish the game.

Even with the win, the Knights need a strong finish in their four remaining games, including against Big 12 powers No. 6 Iowa State (March 2) and No. 2 Houston (March 6), if they want to make their case for the NCAA tourney.

ESPN’s Joe Lundardi has UCF as one of the Big 12’s two automatic qualifiers for the National Invitational Tournament based on the Knights’ NCAA NET ranking (74) and Cincinnati’s (77).

Email Matt Murschel at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on X at @osmattmurschel.