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January 1, 2009It's not a rivalry or a big league matchup, but UCF's next game against Sam Houston State is one that Jermaine Taylor has circled on his calendar.
The Bearkats have had the Knights' number in recent years, taking a 60-58 overtime game at their place last season and also winning a 68-63 contest on Dec. 21, 2005, which was part of a two-game tournament at the University of Arizona.
SHSU visits the UCF Arena for the first time this Saturday at 7 p.m., a place where the Knights (8-4) have won 10 games in a row, and Taylor says he definitely wants to break the losing skid.
"It's a real big chip on my shoulder," Taylor said. "Not only did they beat us last year, they also beat us my freshman year. I'm going to come out hopefully doing the same thing I did in the (Holiday Classic) tournament. Give it my all and play as hard as I can."
Sam Houston State is 6-6 this season, but three of those losses were decided by five points or less. UCF head coach Kirk Speraw thinks the Bearkats, who finished 23-8 last season, will be the toughest team they've faced yet in the current homestand.
"We haven't played very well against them in our two matchups we've had," Speraw said. "Certainly we didn't play very well a year ago at their place and we lost a tough ballgame. They're a well-coached team. They play very hard and they defend very well. It will be a tough ballgame."
The Bearkats have notched Division I victories over Louisiana-Lafayette and Wright State, while their other wins (Schreiner, Texas College, Jarvis Christian and Northwestern Oklahoma State) have come against Division III or NAIA competition. They were competitive though in their losses to Texas Tech (lost by 11), North Texas (lost by five), Western Michigan (lost by three), North Texas (lost by two), UTEP (lost by 11) and Texas A&M (lost by 10).
SHSU has three double-digit scorers in Corey Allmond (13.2 points), Ashton Mitchell (12.3) and DeLuis Ramirez (10.1), who is also their leading rebounder with seven boards a game.
Earlier this week, the Knights captured their third consecutive UCF Holiday Classic championship to improve to 6-0 at home, a place where they're averaging 86.2 points a game this season.
"Saturday will be a big challenge for us, but it's good to still be at home and hopefully we can continue to grow our crowds and get more people out to watch this group because, to me, it's such a fun group to watch," Speraw said. "They're an entertaining group to watch, exciting, and a lot of people are missing out on it."
Taylor adds to mom's trophy case: Minutes after he was honored as the UCF Holiday Classic Most Valuable Player, Jermaine Taylor went into the stands to give the trophy to his mother, Gwendolyn. He says she has a special place at their Tavares home where she keeps all his awards.
"Same thing as she did last year and every other award I get, it goes right to her house," Taylor said. "She has a little MVP cabinet and all my other awards go in a separate cabinet."
Taylor, who was also the MVP of last year's tournament, tied a career-high with 34 points against Penn and then set a new one with 38 points against Chicago State. He was 13-of-22 against the Cougars in 29 minutes of action.
"I got a lot of run outs," Taylor said. "A.J. Rompza did a great job of finding me and so did T.Y. (Taylor Young). My shot was on, and when I'm on, I'm going to keep shooting."
Taylor is the second-leading scorer in C-USA with 23 points per game, trailing only UTEP's Stefon Jackson, who is averaging 24.4.
"Jermaine certainly had an outstanding tournament offensively and really showed versatility in scoring in a variety of ways," Speraw said. "I thought he did a better job of rebounding the basketball. I thought he did a better job of getting to the hole and getting to the free-throw line in these couple of games. I walked in at halftime thinking he probably had 10 or 12 or something and I look at the stat sheet and he's got 24. You know, he just puts them up there so quick sometimes, you don't even realize how many he has."
Rompza finding his rhythm: UCF was always going to be a young team with seven freshmen, but the biggest question mark heading into this season was point guard. The Knights relied on the experience of Mike O'Donnell for the past three years, but it was one of those freshmen, A.J. Rompza, who had to try to pick up where O'Donnell left off.
Just a dozen games into his college career, Rompza is playing beyond his years as the Knights' floor general. He earned All-Tournament team honors in the recent UCF Holiday Classic after dishing out 17 assists in the two games, including a career-high 10 assists against Chicago State. He's averaging 5.3 assists per game, which is the second best mark in C-USA.
Many of those assists turn into points for Jermaine Taylor.
"Rompza and I are real close," Taylor said. "We're friends off the court and on the court. He does a good job of finding me. I have all kinds of confidence in him that if I run out he's going to get me the ball so I can score. I thnk we just have that chemistry and that started in the summer with working out together, shooting, talking and just hanging out."
Speraw feels the chemistry is definitely growing between Rompza and his teammates on the court.
"That's what happens when you have such a massive change in personnel," Speraw said. "It takes a little time to not only learn what we want offensively and defensively and those types of things, but to learn one another and how to utilize the talent that each other has and feed off it.
"I think there were two or three plays (against Chicago State) that you could really see that A.J. and Jermaine are locked in mentally with one another. The other night, there were two plays that were out-of-bounds plays that were not plays that we called. They just had eye contact with one another and they got a quick score out of it because they were on the same page. And it wasn't something that we called, so yes, you see that chemistry growing between those two."
Kuba posts a career high: Freshman Jakub Kusmieruk only saw seven minutes of action against Chicago State, but the 7-foot-4 center made the most of it. He scored a career-high eight points, while also recording two rebounds, a steal and his first blocked shot.
"He did a nice job," Speraw said. "It was a game where there was another big body that he could match up with a little bit easier. He got some boards and put backs on the offensive boards. He's pretty hard to box out. I'm proud of him. He made 4-of-6 on the free-throw line, so that's pretty good. It's pretty good progress for him. He continues to work hard and get better."
Jermaine Taylor was hoping Kusmieruk could get into double-digit points.
"I was trying to find him a little bit more," Taylor said. "Kuba is getting better everyday. He can finish and that's something I like about him. If you can get it to him, he'll do a good job of getting it up there and finishing. I thought he did a good job (against Chicago State)."
Sam Houston State Fun Facts: Sam Houston State, located in Huntsville, Tex., which is 68 miles north of Houston, joined the Division I ranks a couple years after UCF, doing so in the 1986-87 season... The Bearkats became the third school in Southland Conference history to win 20 games or more for three consecutive seasons after finishing 22-9 in 2006, 21-10 in 2007 and 23-8 in 2008... Two SHSU seniors have ties to Florida. DeLuis Ramirez is from Miami and attended Northwestern Christian High School, and Domas Kvedys, who is originally from Lithuania, attended Melbourne's Florida Air Academy. Both players began their basketball careers at Odessa College... Sam Houston State had been known as "The Normals," but they changed their nickname to "Bearkats" in 1923. According to their official site, "the name comes from a slogan of the time, 'tough as a Bearkat!' The spelling with a "k" instead of a "c" denotes a mythical creature."
UCF Basketball Continues Homestand
Who, What: UCF, who are an undefeated 6-0 at home this season, have two non-conference games remaining beginning this Saturday with Sam Houston State. The Knights are looking to beat SHSU for the first time after losing to the Bearkats in both the 2005-06 and 2007-08 seasons.
When, Where: Saturday, January 3 and tip-off is set for 7 p.m at the UCF Arena.
Tickets: $12 single game tickets are available via Ticketmaster at Ticketmaster.com and (407) 839-3900. The UCF Arena box office will also be open Saturday prior to the contest. $50 club seats are also available. UCF students are always free with valid ID.
Call the UCF Ticket Office at (407) 823-1000 for more information about season tickets or premium seating opportunities, including the "Fastbreak Club" which offers the best seats and access to the exclusive "Black and Gold Club." The school is currently offering the "Outback Steakhouse Four-Pack" for $50, which includes the best seat available at the UCF Arena for the Knights' Jan. 10 contest with national power Memphis and also includes tickets to UCF's C-USA games with SMU (Jan. 28), Houston (Feb. 4) and East Carolina (March 7).