The Stetson men's basketball team (3-8) dropped its final game before beginning Atlantic Sun Conference play on Thursday, falling to UCF (7-3) by a score of 83-66 in Orlando. Junior Chris Perez led the Hatters with 20 points in the defeat.
"We'll start with me, and hopefully if I can get it figured out then I can pass that on down, but we have to be a lot better of a team," Stetson head coach Casey Alexander said after the team's disappointing loss.
The Knights opened the game with a three-pointer, extended their lead to nine points at 13-4 by the 15:42 mark, and slowly but surely built their 43-27 first half advantage on the Hatters. UCF opened the game shooting 9-of-10 from the floor, and was a perfect 5-of-5 from beyond the arc through the first eight minutes.
"It was target practice," Alexander said. "They're standing out there shooting practice shots, not guarded, and that improves everybody's percentage. It's not a conscious thing on our guys' part. I know that they want to do well, but there's a big difference in wanting to do well and actually performing."
Stetson, which leads the Atlantic Sun Conference with 16.6 assists per game, was held to just three helpers in the first 20 minutes. The Knights forced the Hatters out of their team oriented offensive style, but Stetson received outstanding individual performances from Perez and junior Aaron Graham to stay in the game, scoring 13 and 10 points in the first half, respectively.
UCF continued to shoot the ball well in the second half, but it was the inside play of star forward Keith Clanton that allowed the Knights to keep control of the game. The 6-9 big man scored 12 of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes, causing plenty of trouble for the Stetson post players on the block.
"He's a heck of a player," Alexander said of Clanton. "The best thing about him is he's willing to play the role that he's given. He's playing a lot more of his minutes down on the block, because that's where they're asking him to, and he's producing."
Stetson trailed by as many as 24 points, but cut the UCF lead to 17 by the final buzzer, falling 83-66. It continued to be Perez and Graham getting things done on the offensive end for the Hatters. The former led the team with 20 points, continually converting opportunities in the lane, while the latter knocked down four treys en route to an 18 point night.
Having trouble getting the ball to him all night, the Hatters finally found senior Adam Pegg in the post more regularly in the second half. The Stetson center finished with 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting in just 23 minutes of action. Junior Willie Green added 10 points and a team high six rebounds.
UCF was led by Clanton's 18 and Isaiah Sykes, who recorded the third triple-double in program history on Thursday night. The guard scored 16 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished out 10 assists, adding three steals in the victory.
Stetson will next play after a short break for the holidays, opening Atlantic Sun Conference play at Mercer on Dec. 31. The Hatters will then travel to Kennesaw State for a Jan. 2 matchup against the Owls before returning home for the conference home opener on Jan. 5.