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Knights finish in style

Keith Clanton led the Knights to a regular-season-ending win over UAB March 3.

Keith Clanton led the Knights to a regular-season-ending win over UAB March 3.

Isaac Babcock

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It was a night full of cheers for A.J. Rompza and P.J. Gaynor. UCF’s only two senior players made their final home game one worthy of taking a bow, as the Knights sank UAB 71-63 while simultaneously climbing into the fourth slot in Conference USA.

The win gave the Knights a narrow lead over UAB in the conference standings, enough to secure a bye in the first round of the C-USA championships.

For Rompza, the Knights’ emotional leader over the course of the last three seasons, the win gave fans a final look at a stellar career on the court, collecting a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists, adding four rebounds, two steals and even a blocked shot in 38 minutes on the floor. Those two steals put the Knights’ energetic guard in second place all-time for steals in UCF history.

For Gaynor, a spot on the starting lineup translated into six points — including a perfect performance from the free throw line — one rebound, one block and one turnover.

Early in the game the Knights may have been more perfect on offense than they had been all year, drilling shot after shot in a rain of 3-pointers that never touched the rim. Even under pressure, the Knights never buckled, with Rompza falling to the ground as he hit a seemingly impossible triple from the sideline, and Marcus Jordan getting a blind feed and turning it into an effortless three of his own.

That massive first half may have been the best shooting the Knights have seen all season, with 57.7 percent accuracy overall and 58.8 percent from 3-point land. Keith Clanton led the way, hitting seven of nine shots overall for 22 points, adding six rebounds. Marcus Jordan and Isaiah Sykes were both on their A-game, shooting 16 and 15 points respectively.

The game, and the ceremony behind it, may have been an emotional high point for Rompza, who had transitioned into a high-energy team leader early on, and had been a fan favorite for the entirety of his career on the floor. In a ceremony before the game, he was moved to tears by fans’ applause.

Now he’ll hope to move the Knights deep into the postseason, possibly starting with the team the Knights just defeated. The Knights (21-9, 10-6) will have to defeat either UAB (14-15, 9-7) or Tulane (15-15, 3-13) to move on to the next round of the C-USA championship.

They tip off in the quarterfinal round as the fourth seed, starting at 10 p.m. Thursday at press time in Memphis. With a win, they could be facing top seed Memphis in the next round.