NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Gary Johnson made sure Central Florida left the Atlantic Sun Conference with another title.
Johnson scored 19 points to help UCF clinch its second straight NCAA tournament appearance and fourth overall with a 63-54 victory
over Gardner-Webb in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament final
"It never gets old," UCF coach Kirk Speraw said. "As a
basketball fan, you grow up thinking about the NCAA tournament."
The Golden Knights (24-8), who are 12-1 in their last 13 games,
move to Conference USA next season after becoming the first
Atlantic Sun team to ever win four conference tournaments despite
only being in the league since 1992.
"We did an excellent job moving the ball and that pretty much
opened the game up for us," said Johnson, a senior.
UCF held Gardner-Webb without a field goal for almost 12 minutes
to turn a three-point deficit into a 15-point advantage.
Gardner-Webb (18-12) led by three with 9:13 left in the first
half. But the Runnin' Bulldogs missed their last nine shots of the
half as UCF reeled off a 15-2 run to take a 26-16 lead at halftime.
"When we were up 14-11, maybe I should have pulled the fire
alarm and run," Gardner-Webb coach Rick Scruggs said. "We got the
ball in the people's hands we wanted, the ball just didn't go in."
William Bakanowsky opened the second half with a 3-pointer for
the Golden Knights and Anthony Williams added two free throws to
make it 31-16.
"Their defense is relentless, and their offense is
meticulous," said Brian Bender, who led Gardner-Webb with 17
Gardner-Webb finally made a field goal with 17:27 left in the
second half -- a span of 11:46 -- when Chris Gash hit a 3-pointer.
Johnson left Gash open, but he answered with a 3 of his own to set
a school record for 3-pointers in a season with 95.
"I tried to dive on the floor and get a loose ball, but they
ended up knocking one down," Johnson said. "When we came back
down on the other end, they missed a rotation and I just felt it."
The Bulldogs never challenged in the second half, trailing by
double digits until the closing minutes. Simon Conn, a 6-foot-9
center from Australia, hit a 3-pointer to make it 59-52 with 36.7
seconds left to finish with 15 points and seven rebounds after
averaging 25 points in the first two tournament games.
"We made it very difficult for him in the first half," Speraw
UCF's Josh Peppers finished with 14 points and Justin Rose added
Gardner-Webb was eligible for the postseason for the first time
since moving from Division II. In the Atlantic Sun tournament, the
top-seeded Bulldogs won two games by a total of three points to
reach the finals.
The Golden Knights, who became the first team to win
back-to-back Atlantic Sun Conference titles since Samford did it in
1999 and 2000, also appeared in the NCAA tournament in 1994, 1996
and 2004, all under Speraw.