AUSTIN, Texas — A fast start gave way to a cold finish as the Texas Longhorns lost consecutive games at the Moody Center for the first time since it opened, dropping a 77-71 contest against the UCF Knights on Wednesday evening in the first matchup between the two programs.
Texas started the game on a 22-6 run, led by 12 points at halftime, and remained in front by 13 points when sophomore forward Dillon Mitchell hit a jumper with 11:59 remaining in the game. From that point forward, however, UCF dominated by going on a 17-3 run as Texas went 3-of-15 shooting over the next 11 and a half minutes and turned the ball over six times. The Knights ultimately outscored the Longhorns 45-27 in the second half, shooting 53.1 percent from the field.
The win probability chart from ESPN told the tale of how Texas squandered the opportunity to avoid going 1-3 to start Big 12 play.
In the starting lineup for the first time since early in the season, Texas senior guard IT Horton scored a team-high and season-high 20 points, but the issues with bench scoring continued as UCF held a 34-7 advantage in that category.
While Mitchell added 15 points in an efficient performance, senior forward Dylan Disu struggled with foul trouble, scoring seven points in 21 minutes. Junior guard Tyrese Hunter added seven point of his own and played the point guard role effectively at times with seven assists and was equally effective on defense at times with four steals. But he also turned the ball over four times, including two critical possessions during the big UCF run that got him benched for the final 6:21.
For the Golden Knights, guard Jaylin Sellers scored a game-high 24 points, hitting all eight free-throw attempts, while four other players reached double digits.
Texas got off to a hot start, playing with active hands and physicality on defense to help produce good looks offensively. Disu started the game with five points on an isolation jumper and a three in transition followed by two layups for the Longhorns, the latter on another fast break, forcing a quick timeout less than two and a half minutes into the game with Texas leading 9-2.
Disu used his increased shot credibility to get into the lane on a pump fake for a patented floater before the offensive struggles continued for the Knights thanks to consecutive steals by Hunter, the second of which led to a three by senior guard Max Abmas that moved him past Larry Bird on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list.
Trying to disrupt the Texas offense with a full-court press after a layup by Abmas, UCF instead lost the Oral Roberts transfer on the wing for an open three as the Longhorns started 8-of-10 shooting, heading into the under-12 timeout with a 22-8 lead.
Both teams went into a scoring drought out of the media break with UCF going to a zone defense that contributed to Texas missing five straight shots, needing another forced turnover and a drive by Abmas to pick up a foul and a trip to the free-throw line to break out of it. UCF finally made its fist three of the game with 8:09 remaining in the first half, then hit another to cut the lead to 23-16 and force Longhorns head coach Rodney Terry to call his use-it-or-lose-it timeout.
It wan’t until Horton broke his scoreless streak of three-plus games with a three, a mid-range jumper, and floater that Texas found an offensive rhythm again by scoring on six of seven possessions.
The issue was that UCF steadied after a 1-of-8 shooting start, hitting 10 of its next 13 shots, including four threes, two each by leading scorers Jaylin Sellers and Darius Johnson, who entered the game combining for 52 of the 106 threes hit by the Knights this season.
Texas missed some opportunities at the free-throw line in the first half, starting 3-of-8 from the charity stripe, but Horton did made up for a miss by senior forward Kaden Shedrick with an offensive rebound and floater to maintain some separation and create some more with a three in transition to take a 44-32 lead into halftime.
Horton finished the first half with a team-high 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 2-of-4 from three, and was noticeably more active defensively.
UCF scored on its first three possessions of the second half as Texas executed well against the zone defense of the Knights, but had two empty possessions between Hunter penetrating and finding Mitchell for dunks.
Horton stayed hot with a transition three and Mitchell showed off his athleticism in the open court as Texas turned a defensive rebound into a dunk for the high-flying sophomore, who wrong-footed a left-handed slam.
OH DILLON MITCHELL! pic.twitter.com/RuI8Ie3T0C— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) January 18, 2024
On a nice move off the bounce, Horton hit a jumper followed by a concerning moment for the Longhorns when Shedrick left the game holding his back when he was dunked on and had the UCF player land on him at the end of the play.
Still playing zone, the Knights went on a 7-0 run over two minutes to cut the deficit to cut the deficit to six points, but Hunter responded on the other end with a three to end a three-minute drought for the Longhorns. It was a short-lived response, though, as Disu committed his fourth foul, leading to two free throws for UCF, and Abmas carelessly threw a pass away, prompting an irate Terry to call a timeout with the lead at five points. A missed jumped and another turnover sent the game into the under-eight timeout facing a crucial stretch — the Golden Knights hadn’t been within five points since the score was 7-2.
UCF made a free throw, rebounded the miss on the second, got within two points on a dunk, and went ahead with a three in transition after a turnover by Hunter, a 10-0 run for the Knights stopped on a three by Horton. Sellers rattled home a jumper and Hunter gave it away again, losing his balance dribbling towards the sideline. When Sellers hit a turnaround jumper, Abmas regained the lead with a three and Texas drew a foul on an important loose ball, then another after a defensive rebound contested before and after it was secured.
Out of the under-four timeout, Horton missed two threes and Texas gave up two drives for baskets as UCF took a three-point lead heading into a critical review with 1:17 remaining after Mitchell lost the ball trying to score in transition that was overturned in favor off the Knights. Johnson hit a late-clock jumper to stretch the lead before Mitchell had a shot blocked at the rim that resulted in another review on the subsequent loose ball, upheld as UCF’s possession off Horton.
In desperation mode, the Longhorns fouled Sellers, who hit both free throws, although Abmas hit the second of two three-points attempts to maintain the smallest semblance of hope down four with 17 seconds remaining. But Texas lost almost 10 seconds trying to foul UCF and the Knights finished the game with a six-point win.
Texas returns to the Moody Center on Saturday morning for a game against No. 9 Baylor.