Tristen Newton against UCF - 2019/2020

Freshman Tristen Newton rises for a shot against the University of Central Florida on Thursday.

A hot-shooting second half and three players in double figures helped the University of Central Florida (12-10, 3-7 AAC) defeat East Carolina University (9-14, 3-7 AAC) on Thursday night in Minges Coliseum. Despite scoring just 27 and 24 points in the first half respectively, a combined 81 points were scored in the closing 20 minutes, culminating in a 68-64 ECU loss.

“Obviously very disappointed,” ECU head coach Joe Dooley said. “We weren’t turned up like we needed to be and I thought UCF was to begin. We hit that stretch in the second half where we played about as poorly as we have in a while. They took full advantage. We got ourselves back in the game and then made some plays -- we had some opportunities we didn’t take full advantage of and that’s disappointing.”

Starting the game quickly has often been a key to success for the Pirates this season. Against Southern Methodist University (18-5, 8-2 AAC) earlier in the year, ECU jumped out to a quick start, only to hold that advantage for much of the game and walk away with a victory.

On Thursday night inside Minges, with rain falling in buckets outside, the quick start belonged to the Knights.

Down 9-0 less than three minutes into the game, the Pirates responded by reeling off 12 consecutive points on the back of back-to-back three-point baskets from freshman guard Tristen Newton.

Newton, who finished the evening with a game-high 23 points, ultimately shot 4-of-7 from three-point distance and 7-of-14 from the floor overall. Of that outpouring, Newton scored 15 points in the second half, helping the Pirates to mount an unlikely comeback.

“This game was a bunch of runs,” sophomore forward Jayden Gardner said. “They made a run early, we made a run, they made a run, we made a run. At the end of the game, we made our run a little bit too late and we couldn’t keep up at the end.”

What was a slim three-point advantage for the Knights ballooned to 17 by the 5:47 mark of the second half. After shooting just 35.7% in the opening 20 minutes, UCF shot a blistering 63.6% in the final 20 minutes, including a 71.4% (5-of-7) effort from long-range.

The product of good ball movement and many wide-open shots, redshirt senior guard Matt Milon was at the forefront of UCF’s shot-making capabilities. In the second half alone, Milon made two three-pointers while freshman guard Darin Green Jr racked up 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting (2-of-3 from three-point range).

For the game, Milon and Green represented two of the three Knights to hit double figures, with redshirt junior forward Collin Smith rounding out that trio with 14 points.

Succeeding from the benefit of open looks, UCF built a lead that looked insurmountable. Sending fans in the direction of the exits, it was a driving layup by Newton that kicked off the Pirates’ run.

What followed was an 11-2 run by ECU that pulled the game back to 62-56 with 2:59 remaining. Driven mostly by Gardner and Newton, the Pirates would get as close as four points with under a minute left.

Helping ECU hang around by missing free throws, the Knights ended up going 2-of-10 from the charity stripe in the final 52 seconds of Thursday’s matchup. A Newton three-pointer drew the Pirates within four at 66-62 with 44 seconds left.

Missed opportunities, however, kept ECU from cutting any further into that advantage. The back-breaking play, oddly enough, came on a missed UCF free throw.

Still clinging to a four-point lead with 24 seconds left, Milon stepped to the free throw for UCF. On his second miss, ECU failed to box him out, resulting in an offensive rebound and two additional free throws to push the advantage to six points.

“I think it was (junior guard) J.J. (Miles) and (junior guard) Bitumba (Baruti) was supposed to be pinching, he was worried about pinching too much and didn’t realize the ball had kicked off right beside him,” Gardner said. “It’s just a play that can’t happen in a game like this.”

Justifiably frustrated with that play after the game, Dooley emphasized just how much he and the coaching staff focus on free throw box outs with the players in practice.

Effectively ending the game, it was the final nail in the coffin to an otherwise winnable basketball for the home team on Thursday.

“I’ve done this for a while, that’s the first time I’ve seen a guy, with no one on the free throw line, get an offensive rebound when they missed a free throw,” Dooley said. “We work on free throw block outs everyday, I’ve never seen that and I hope I never see it again.”

UCF went on to miss two more free throws and nine total in the second half. While the Pirates shot 50% (14-of-28) in the waning 20 minutes, it proved to not be enough. Having held the advantage in points in the paint despite freshman center/forward Charles Coleman battling foul trouble, and on the offensive glass, the Pirates fell just a few key plays away from earning victory.

Nevertheless, it’s rarely ideal to get down 17 points late in the second half or let the opposing team shoot north of 60%, but that’s where ECU found itself on Thursday.

“We took some steps back tonight,” Dooley said. “We take some steps forward -- Temple we played a couple good stretches and a couple really bad. We’ve got to get it closer where it’s not A or Z, we’ve got to get it somewhere in the middle.”

Gardner, who had just six points at halftime, finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, earning his 11th double-double of the campaign. Even with Newton’s big game, however, there was not enough help from the rest of the roster.

Aside from the top-two scorers for ECU, no one posted more than seven points or made more than three field goals.

“We played hard for six minutes today, we played up to our ability for about six minutes today which is really disappointing,” Dooley said.

ECU will be back in action on Saturday when it travels to Tulane University (10-12, 2-8 AAC). Tip-off between the Pirates and Green Wave is scheduled for 6 p.m.

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