UCF vs. Auburn

Knights junior forward C.J. Walker makes a slam dunk for UCF during the first half of the game against Auburn University on Wednesday night. The Knights would go on to lose their second game of the season, 85-68, in a hard-fought battle with the Tigers.

The UCF men’s basketball team suffered its second loss of the season to the No. 21 Auburn University Tigers, 85-68, at the Auburn Arena on Wednesday night.

“Both of the teams are off to a splendid start this season,” ESPN+ commentator Lyn Rollins said during a live broadcast at the start of the game. “Only one mark in the loss column on both sides.”

Though the Knights attempted to equalize the score throughout the game, that "one mark" would rise to two for the Black and Gold by the end of the night. Fifth-year Darius Perry led UCF with a record-setting 18 points and six rebounds, while redshirt senior Cheikh Mbacke Diong produced 11 points, four rebounds, and two blocks.

"I thought he did a really good job of being active," Knights Head Coach Johnny Dawkins said about Diong in a postgame interview. "And we helped him, I say, by putting the ball in positions where I thought he could be effective."

The first 20 minutes of the game made for excellent competition, as the Knights and the Tigers battled it out for the lead, leading to an 8-point margin about halfway through the first half. Toward the end of the half, UCF was shooting at 43.3%, while Auburn was slightly behind at only 40%. 

“Talk about hustle points,” Rollins said when UCF achieved a 32-30 lead. “UCF is going after it.”

Despite the back-and-forth, Auburn consistently remained slightly ahead in points. A layup made by Tiger sophomore Walker Kessler placed the two teams at a tie, and in the final moments of the first half, Auburn once again took the lead, 39-36.

"We really balanced our offense well," Dawkins said about the first half. "We moved it inside, we moved it outside, as we talked about earlier about having to balance on offense."

Entering the second half, Auburn came prepared for pressure and ready to defend. At around the 18-minute mark, Kessler made a layup in the paint off an opponent turnover, increasing the Tigers' score to 41-36; a quick free throw bumped up the team's lead to 42-36. Throughout the half, Kessler continued to hit it big for Auburn and strongly protect the paint, causing UCF to alter shots —half of which were blocked — and throw hurried shots up in frustration.

"We were quick-shooting," Dawkins said. "We really weren't moving the basketball like we did in the first half, and that just compounded it."

The last 14 seconds of the game saw the biggest score gap of the night, 85-65, lie in favor of the Tigers. Though the Knights attempted to step up the pressure, they continued to fall short, missing 20 of 24 3-pointer attempts by the end of the matchup. In the end, a final 3-pointer made by Auburn senior Preston Cook secured the Tigers' win, as a three from UCF redshirt sophomore Tony Johnson Jr. failed to dislodge Auburn's 85-68 lead.

"You give them credit," Dawkins said in regard to the Auburn Tigers. "They're a good basketball team: they want to get up and down, they play fast, they have some really good players as well. So that combination, I think, made it difficult in the second half."

Despite the solid pressure from both sides, Auburn ultimately won by defending UCF guards Perry and junior Darin Green Jr., whose consistent performances made the Tigers uncomfortable.

"It was a difficult road game, but I thought we competed well," Dawkins said. "We just have to be a little better with our thought process in those moments where the team has momentum."

With the loss, UCF moves to 4-2 on the season, while Auburn moves to 6-1. Up next, the Knights will return home to take on Bethune-Cookman University at the Addition Financial Arena on Sunday at 2 p.m.

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