Ceasar DeJesus and Dayon Griffin led the Knights in scoring with 16 points apiece as UCF rallied to beat Mercer, 88-79, to open the 2017-2018 season.
“It was a great first game,” UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins said. “We knew Mercer was very good. They’ve been battle tested. So we knew it was a game that we would have to win that they weren’t going to give us the game.”
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After trailing 47-46 at halftime, UCF ratcheted up their defensive intensity in the second half. Mercer struggled at one point only scoring one point in a nine-minute span, which was enough to give the Knights some breathing room.
The Bears pulled within seven points with just over a minute remaining. Terrell Allen made two free throws and Griffin slammed the ball down with 29 seconds left shutting the door on Mercer’s late rally.
“We started really understanding how we had to build the lead and that was getting stops. I thought we really got dialed in defensively, that led us to our fast break getting out in the open court.
A.J. Davis led the way in the second half scoring a career-high 15 points. Dawkins described Davis as a queen on a chessboard after the game.
“If we were playing chess, I think he would be my queen on the chessboard,” Dawkins said. “He’s that player that can kind of go all over the place and do a lot of everything.”
Big man Tacko Fall sat out Friday’s opener with what Dawkins called a sore hip. Fall is expected to miss some time, but Dawkins explained that “it’s not anything that will keep him out long.”
With no Fall for the Knights, Rokas Ulvydas started in his spot scoring seven points including an important offensive rebound put-back which sparked a 12-0 run by UCF.
Ria’n Holland scored 21 points in the first half for the Bears finishing with 31 on 6-11 shooting from beyond the arc. Mercer guard Jordan Strawberry grabbed 6 rebounds with 12 points.
“Defensively, in the first half, we played with some jitters,” Dawkins said. “I didn’t think we played as well as I know we’re capable of.”
BJ Taylor added 12 points and 4 assists before leaving the game at the 13:46 mark of the second with an apparent foot injury. Chance McSpadden returned for the Knights scoring 13 points off the bench.
Dawkins said after the game that Taylor hurt his foot and the team will know more in the coming days after team doctors take a look.
Davis and Chad Brown each had three blocks as UCF held Mercer to 41.1% shooting. The Knights outrebounded the Bears, 39-28.
UCF will take on Gardner-Webb at home on Wednesday. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.