Once March Madness begins, rarely do conference tournaments end in a no. 1 vs. no. 2 matchup in the championship game, but that is exactly what happened Thursday night when UCF faced off against South Florida for the AAC tourney title.
The result was a hard-fought game when UCF came out victorious thanks to another phenomenal Diamond Battles performance. The victory crowned UCF champions of the AAC; it also gave the Knights revenge for their loss to the Bulls in last season’s conference title game and gave them an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
This game was far from a one-sided affair. South Florida led at the end of each of the first three quarters. It wasn’t until 5:02 remained in the fourth quarter that UCF pulled away, going on a 9-0 run to gain the lead and secure the victory. The Knights turned the tide by getting the dirty work done: Hitting free throws, grabbing rebounds, and making the occasional jumper.
It took a team effort for UCF to win this game; Battles was nothing short of sensational, scoring 17 points and doing so by driving to the basket and getting to the free-throw line. Forwards Destiny Thomas and Masseny Kaba both had nine rebounds apiece, helping the Knights win the rebounding battle 39-33, and the bench came through, scoring 12 points.
For South Florida, there is nothing but the agony of defeat. The Bulls were the reigning 2021 tourney champs, so losing their title to the team they beat last year has to be disappointing. It’s also disappointing that they lost to UCF in every matchup they had this season, going 0-3. UCF was the top team all season long in the American Athletic Conference, but with a lead throughout the game, it looked like South Florida had a chance to upend that hierarchy, until they didn’t.
The Bulls still had some positive takeaways in the loss. Their starting guard trio was sensational, playing all but one minute of the game, and their defense was aggressive, getting eight steals and four blocks on the night. That aggressiveness also led to 19 fouls, but I think that style fits South Florida more than UCF. It kept the Bulls in charge of the game and played under their terms. It almost worked. They just couldn’t close out the game.
Now we wait to see what seed UCF gets and if South Florida makes it to the big dance. The Bulls likely have the resume to qualify, and according to ESPN, they’re currently pegged as a ninth seed. UCF is ranked 25th in the country, so can the Knights earn a fifth seed or higher? We’ll find out on Selection Sunday, but for now, UCF will get to enjoy its AAC tournament title.