There were no balloons, no confetti, and they didn’t stop the game to commemorate the occasion, but none of that could take away the fact that Altron Jackson became Conference USA’s all-time scoring leader.
Jackson was 4-of-7 from three-point range and 5-of-8 from the free-throw line and Will McDonald contributed career highs in points and rebounds to defeat Central Florida 84-79 Tuesday.
For the past few seasons, free throw shooting has been South Florida’s Achilles’ heel. But Tuesday it was their best friend, as the Bulls hit eight straight free throws down the stretch to defeat the pesky Golden Knights at the UCF Arena in Orlando for the Bulls’ eighth straight win against the Knights. McDonald had 29 points and 13 rebounds, including 5-of-8 from the free-throw line.
“(In) the first half I played kind of lackadaisical,” McDonald said. “I let my man (Paul Reed) come out and get offensive rebounds, he scored a lot and I know he’s not a big-time scorer like that.”
USF did not hit a field goal in the final three minutes, but connected on eight straight free throws in the final minute to finally put the Golden Knights away. The game featured 10 ties and 20 lead changes, and proved to be much closer than most expected.
“(Coach Seth Greenberg) told us from the beginning that if we come out ready to play, we can do what we’ve been doing to them,” McDonald said. “(And) if we come out half-stepping, it could be a close game like Bucknell was.”
McDonald upped his career high by one after matching it against Cincinnati in the Bulls’ last game. He was 10-of-20 from the field and made four of the Bulls’ eight consecutive free throws in the final 33 seconds. McDonald scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half.
“I just looked at (at assistant coach Brian Yankelevitz),” McDonald said. “I look at him for everything. He told me to ‘go ahead and knock (the free throws) down, I know you can do it.'”
Freshman Brian Swift, who replaced B.B. Waldon for the sole reason of free-throw shooting, iced the game when he drained two from the free-throw line with six seconds left to put USF ahead 83-79.
“Down the stretch we showed great toughness, we kept our composure, we had a lot of guys contribute. It was a good win on the road in a hostile environment,” Greenberg said. “Brian Swift, the freshman, stepping to the line and knocking down those two free throws was real positive for us.”
USF, the only team on UCF’s schedule with an RPI in double digits, never led by more than eight and trailed 36-35 at halftime. The Golden Knights were aided by some sloppy ball handling by the Bulls – USF committed 20 turnovers.
“We came out not as emotional as we needed to,” Greenberg said. “We weren’t as tough as we needed to be.”
USF went on a 17-6 run, capped by a layup by McDonald, to open up a 63-55 lead midway through the second half. But as was the case all night, UCF fought back, pulling within two on a jumper from Joey Graham (19 points).
UCF eventually tied the score at 68 by Graham’s brother, Steve (17 points), following a technical foul on the USF bench. Ray Abellard (19 points) then gave the Golden Knights a 75-73 lead, but a goaltending call on a McDonald layup again tied the game at the three minute mark.
“Those two (Graham) brothers, they play unbelievable together,” McDonald said.
After a pair of Steve Graham free throws put UCF up 77-75, the Bulls scored the next six points on free throws to extend the lead to 81-77. An Abellard layup cut it to 81-79, but Swift’s free throws gave USF their first win against a team from Florida this season.
“This win makes us realize that we need to play a little harder than what we did,” McDonald said. “Because personally, I really think we could have blown this game out.”
With his 17 points, Jackson passed DeMarco Johnson, becoming C-USA’s all-time leading scorer. Reggie Kohn finished with 16 points and six assists.
- Brandon Wright covers men’s basketball and can be reached at email@example.com