After a historic run and heartbreaking end, fans of UCF basketball are waking up on Monday in a daze. Certainly, the sting of defeat will linger longer for the players and coaches who pushed the nation's top team in Duke to the brink of elimination in the NCAA Tournament.
It is hard to reconcile all the feelings of watching that dramatic, up and down 77-76 win by the Blue Devils that sends them marching on in March Madness, while the Knights already sit back in Orlando after the best season in program history. Things basically boil down to two emotions, pride for UCF's effort on the sport's grandest stage and pain due to what could have been and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
In over a decade of watching every Knights program, I have never seen a team put in a better effort. To play with and, at times, control a game where three lottery picks and the best college basketball player of his generation are on the other side of the court is nothing short of remarkable.
In perhaps his final game with the black and gold, Aubrey Dawkins, put up the performance of a lifetime. The effort exerted by every member of that team popped off the screen and, even in defeat, there was no way one could not sit back and be proud of what they were watching.
There is no question that anyone traveling around the country today decked out in Knights gear is getting well-wishes from others and getting complimented about their team. Those are the kind of moments that have given a young fan base so much pride and that will continue to build the UCF brand.
Even college basketball legend Mike Krzyzewski, with all his connections to the Dawkins family, was able to step outside of the moment with his team and enjoy what he saw from UCF.
“I feel bad that they lost. I mean, I’m exhilarated," said Coach K. "I’m happy ... It’s like, a yin and a yang here. Because they were deserving of winning. They were so good. And I’m so proud that those kids played at the level of their coach.
Coach K was so respectful of the moment because he knows how much pain his Duke team inflicted on the other bench. That's the second side of the coin going forward for everyone involved with the Knights is that feeling of longing for what could have been.
UCF was a ball rolling in the hoop away from reaching unprecedented heights with a birth in the Sweet 16. Just playing toe to toe with the Blue Devils was enough to get respect throughout college basketball, but a win would have created an even more seismic shift in the perspective in the program going forward.
What makes the pain even deeper and longer-lasting perhaps is that there is no guarantee for what happens next. Knights basketball is an upstart in every sense of the phrase and with the players, they will be losing along with improved teams all across the American Athletic Conference, it is hard to see a road to back to the NCAA Tournament right away.
Finding a path to sustained success in college basketball in Florida is a different beast than doing it on the football side. Due to recruiting advantages and the popularity of the sport in this state, UCF Football has built a program that can annually win ten games and be a contender for a major bowl bid.
The difficulties in recruiting transformative talent and a lack of resources that even other AAC schools are accustomed to make it an uphill battle for UCF. Its as if Coach Johnny Dawkins is entering a fight with a machete while his opponent is wielding a machine gun.
So, there is no set date for a return to this stage for UCF Basketball, but if we have learned one thing over the last several years, the Knights are always primed to Charge On and defy the odds.
Other Orlando Sports Headlines for the Week
- Orlando City Soccer created some new hope amongst an apathetic fanbase by notching their first win of the season, a 1-0 decision on the road against the New York Red Bulls. The Lions defense was sound and it seemed like the team pretty much controlled the game from the start. A late goal got the side the win they deserved and perhaps it is something they can no build off of after a 0-1-2 start.
- The Orlando Apollos rubber-stamped a trip to the inaugural Alliance of American Football playoffs with a decisive 36-6 road victory over the Atlanta Legends. It was a great bounce-back for a team that had just lost their first game last week. The 6-1 Apollos have just three games left in the regular season and seem on a collision course for the AAF championship game.
- The season is winding down for the Orlando Magic and they sit just one game back of the final playoff spot as of Monday morning. The week begins with a critical back-to-back, where the Magic will take on the Philadelphia 76ers at home on Monday and then travel south to face the team directly above them in the standings, the Miami Heat, on Tuesday. As one of my media colleagues told me this week, that showdown with the Heat may be the most important game Orlando has played in since their last playoff appearance in 2012.
Photo via @UCF_MBB on Twitter