By the time the clock struck midnight and New Year’s Eve turned into the first day of a new year, the University of Central Florida women’s basketball team was in need of a fresh start.
After playing a very challenging nonconference schedule, culminating with an 82-70 loss at Florida State on Dec. 31, the Knights’ record was 2-11 and the chances that they would be playing in the NCAA tournament appeared rather long.
But not to second-year coach Joi Williams and her Knights (17-16), who are a No. 14 seed in their first NCAA appearance since 1999. They will face No. 3 seed North Carolina (27-6) at noon today in Chattanooga’s McKenzie Arena.
“At one time we thought we might have gone a little crazy (with the schedule),” Williams said of playing the likes of Baylor, Villanova, Wisconsin, Wake Forest, Ole Miss and Florida State, all of which are playing in either the NCAA tournament or the WNIT.
In her first season at UCF, Williams started five freshmen — she had 10 on her roster — and the Knights went 10-20. The team was still young entering this season, but by the time the Conference USA schedule began on Jan. 3 against Southern Miss, UCF had played some of the better teams in the country and had the lead in the second half in many of those losses.
“We got together on Jan. 2, and I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Williams said, “and our game was the next day against Southern Miss ... and they just made a decision that ‘Hey, we’re really going to buy in and do the little things to be successful.’”
Facing preseason C-USA favorite Southern Miss, UCF won 65-59 and sophomore guard Angelica Mealing said that was the spark that got the Knights headed in the right direction.
“I think the first Southern Miss game, that put a lot of confidence in us because they were picked to the conference this year,” Mealing said.
The Knights went on to go 11-5 in the league, tying for second place with three teams. The No. 5 seed in the C-USA tournament, UCF escaped a first-round game against Rice, which finished last in the conference.
Over the next three days, the Knights beat fourth-seeded Houston in the quarterfinals, regular-season champion SMU in the semis and Southern Miss in overtime in the championship game to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Knights have won 15 of their last 20 games.
With a starting lineup of four sophomores and a freshman, they wound up exactly where they dreamed of being, even after losing 11 of their first 13 games: in the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t give up,” said sophomore forward Emma Cannon, a first-team all-conference selection. “We just kept fighting, and we ended up winning the conference tournament and surprised a lot of people in our conference.”
The Knights are hoping for another big surprise today against the perennial national power Tar Heels, ranked No. 11 in the final Associated Press poll. North Carolina was a No. 1 seed in the previous four tournaments and reached the Elite Eight last season.
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...