With strong efforts from stars and role players alike, the Golden Hurricane continued its late-season surge with wins against USF and UCF.
Coming off his worst performance of the conference schedule, Martins Igbanu wasn’t about to be discouraged going into last Sunday’s game against South Florida.
“Coach said before the game… to trust in yourself and others,” he said. And that is exactly what Igbanu and the rest of the Golden Hurricane did, as TU rolled over the cellar-dwelling Bulls to win their fifth straight and complete the season sweep.
Igbanu led the way with 16 points in just 21 minutes, working masterfully from the low block and shooting a hyper-efficient 7-9 from the field. He was joined in double figures by Junior Etou, DaQuan Jeffries and Curran Scott, each of whom recorded 11 points. Etou also tallied game-high totals of nine rebounds and five assists, while Scott played his best game in months, matching his season-high in conference play.
Just as they had at home three weeks ago, USF came out frisky and took an early 7-0 lead. TU settled for tough, contested looks and bricked them all in the opening minutes, including two from Sterling Taplin, who was unable to replicate his magic shooting touch from the matchup against UConn. It was nearly five minutes into the ballgame before the Golden Hurricane finally got on the board, a corner three from Jeffries off a nice drive-and-dish from Taplin. After Jeffries hit another from the same spot on the very next possession, the game was firmly back in Tulsa’s hands.
The Bulls kept it close for a few minutes, but an 8-0 run from Tulsa to end the half left them down 34-23. Scott and Jeffries did most of the damage of the bench, nearly matching USF’s point total between them.
Not satisfied with a comfortable margin, the Golden Hurricane decided to turn the game into a blowout in the second, scoring the first 11 points of the half. Igbanu was the biggest difference maker, showing off his trademark combo of finesse and power and scoring at will over USF’s overmatched bigs. He scored 14 of 16 points after the break and didn’t miss a shot. TU’s lead eventually reached 24, which was more than enough to withstand a small South Florida run and close out the game 73-61.
Next up, Tulsa faced off against a much more daunting opponent from the Sunshine State: the UCF Knights. Though they’ve been without seven-foot-six Tacko Fall, the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year, since January, Central Florida still had a better overall record than TU, going into the matchup and trailed by just one game in the conference standings. Undaunted by the task, the Golden Hurricane put on yet another strong showing and walked away with a 70-61 victory.
DaQuan Jeffries put on a show, scoring a team-high 19 points off the bench on 6-8 shooting. Etou was the only other member of the Golden Hurricane in double digits with 17 and led the team with five rebounds. Other standouts included Taplin, whose six assists led all players, and Lawson Korita, who turned in an electrifying nine-point performance in the first half. Point guard B. J. Taylor netted a game-high 26 points for the Knights.
Even without Fall, the long arms and swarming D of UCF bothered TU, forcing them time and again to take tough shots late in the shot clock. The team got off just 18 shots in the first half, yet still managed to connect on a blistering 67 percent from the floor and 56 percent from three. The Knights’ ball denial and frequent switching made nothing easy, and Etou was held scoreless in 16 minutes. It was Korita, the unlikeliest of heroes, who came in clutch with two three pointers. His high-arching four-point play from the corner with four minutes left in the half gave Tulsa its first lead since scoring the first bucket of the game and ignited a 10-0 run.
Etou and Jeffries dominated the ball and owned the second half, between them taking more than half of TU’s shots and combining for 31 of the team’s 35 points. The score remained close for the first 12 minutes of the second half, the Knights going up briefly on a triple from Taylor, then knotting it up again at 53 with just under eight minutes remaining. From there, the Golden Hurricane’s big forwards went to work and exploded for a 12-2 run to put the game away. TU improved to 10-0 all time against Central Florida in the Reynolds Center and at 53.5 percent, was the first opponent to shoot better than 46 percent against UCF all season. They pushed their cushion in the conference standings to two games.
My hat goes off to Korita, who made the most of his playing time and hit some big-time shots. I know at times earlier in the year it must have seemed I was overly critical of his play, but the guy clearly puts in the work, and it’s great to see him go off like this.
I’m hoping we see a little more from Elijah Joiner over the home stretch of the season. Joiner was the team’s best three point shooter by percentage over the first month of the season and looked like he would be able to provide poise beyond his years in running the second unit. Since then, his play has been characterized by the sloppy play typical of a freshman point guard: careless passes, forced shots, split seconds of indecision that allow defenses to adjust and windows to close. Joiner’s minutes have been slashed as Haith has solidified the rotation, but I still think he could have a big role left to play. Should Taplin find himself in foul trouble, he’s really the Golden Hurricane’s only effective option; Corey Henderson, despite his speed, decent handle and prototypical point guard size, doesn’t have the passing chops to hold down the fort.