The UCF women’s basketball team defeated the Pitt Panthers 74-58 Wednesday in its season opener in front of a record-setting crowd at Addition Financial Arena.
Thanks to Education Day, third, fourth and fifth grade classes from 15 elementary schools across Orange County came to support the Knights in their season-opening win, and be part of the record 6,973 attendants.
This is the second season in a row the Knights (1-0) have beaten the Panthers (0-1) the first game of the season.
UCF head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said the team adjusted very well to everything that was thrown at them throughout the game.
"It was great that they can adjust and, you know, just throw away the whole game-plan because it's clearly not working," Abrahamson-Henderson said.
Pitt started the game on an 18-5 scoring run, including multiple three-pointers from junior guard Gabbie Green. The Panthers led by nine after the first quarter and went 4-for-4 on three-pointers. The Knights shot 25% from the field in the first quarter.
Senior guard Kay Kay Wright did not start the game. Abrahamson-Henderson said Wright's absence from the starting lineup was purely precautionary.
“She had been playing all summer and tweaked something and I wanted to be really smart with her,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Obviously she’s going to be playing a lot [this season].”
Wright made her presence known off the bench as she scored the first nine points for the Knights in the second quarter and 11 total points in the quarter. Wright finished the game with 16 points on 50% shooting.
Despite Wright’s scoring spurt, Pitt controlled most of the first half, shooting 70% from deep and forcing UCF into taking low-percentage shots on offense. The Panthers led for all but one minute of the first half and went into the locker room with a 33-30 lead.
Abrahamson-Henderson said the team’s biggest adjustment from the first half to the second was how the team defended with higher energy and pressed harder on Pitt's shooters.
“Our adjustment was really pressuring the ball,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “We were playing inside-out, and then we just started playing out and pressuring everybody.”
These adjustments proved to be the game-changer for the Knights as they went on a 17-6 run to start the third quarter and outscored Pitt 44-25 in the second half. UCF took the lead with 7:27 left in the third quarter and never lost it from that point on.
The Knights’ defense forced Pitt into a number of tough shots in the second half. The Panthers shot their 26% from the field in the fourth quarter and went 1-for-7 on three-pointers.
UCF sophomore forward Brittney Smith said the team’s defensive performance set the identity for the team moving forward.
“From here on out other teams will know that we work extremely hard and never give up on defense,” Smith said. “Our defense is what’s gonna get us through everything.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Knights held the advantage in multiple categories. The bench accounted for 31 points. There were four Knights who finished with double digits in scoring: Wright, junior forward Masseny Kaba, Smith and redshirt senior guard Sianni Martin.
The front-court duo of Kaba and Smith provided important minutes for the Knights with Kaba tallying 14 points and nine rebounds, and Smith contributing 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Smith, who only started three games last year, said she hopes this performance will put her on their opponent's radar in the future.
“I worked really hard over the summer to expand my game,” Smith said. “I want to be a threat on the floor, I want teams to be threatened by me. I’m here to win.”
On top of the attendance record, the crowd also set the decibel record for the loudest noise in Addition Financial Arena history.
Abrahamson-Henderson said the noise was noticeable on the court, but she appreciated the energy and enthusiasm.
“Usually [the team] can hear me stomping around, but I couldn’t even hear myself out there,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Even the referees were saying it was loud.”
Abrahamson-Henderson said she was pleased with the team’s performance, but really hoped the game left an impact on the elementary school students.
“I’m a really big believer in role models,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “There can be a little girl out there in the stands that really identifies with somebody on our team.”
UCF has a three-game road trip this month and will return to Orlando on Nov. 24 to take on the Delaware Blue Hens (0-0).
UCF sophomore guard Diamond Battles said the team will focus on their defensive identity in order to find success during the road trip.
“On the road — we’re not in our gym," Battles said. "We’re not used to the courts and the rims. If we play defense first, then the rest will come to us.”
The Knights’ next game will be on Saturday at 8 p.m. against the Belmont Bruins (0-0) at the Curb Event Center in Nashville, Tennessee.