Have you ever had one of those moments? A flash that this is your day, your time, and that nothing can change that? Houston Cougar point guard Zamal Nixon had one of those moments on Saturday. And when he had that flash, he just knew that nothing was going to prevent the Houston Cougars from pulling off the upset of the 19th ranked and previously undefeated 14-0 UCF Knights.
That moment came with 3:16 remaining in the game. The Cougars were up 63-54 and were attempting to halt another UCF run. Nixon grabbed a rebound of a missed UCF shot and pushed the ball down the court. Passing mid court, he pushed harder, going for the fast break.
He saw Darian Thibodeaux in front of him, flashing toward the basket, and he whipped the ball in his direction. Only Thibodeaux held up at the three-point line. Thinking he had just committed a big turnover, Nixon was shocked when Maurice McNeil appeared, grabbed the ball and slammed it through the bucket.
"That's when you know it's your day," Nixon said. "Because man, I just knew that was going to be a turnover."
Nixon shouldn't have had to wait until that moment to know the Cougars were going to get the 76-71 win and the upset. Not after the Cougars started the game with perhaps their best half of play this season -- definitely their best first half of basketball this season -- as they burst out to a quick 8-0 lead, powered by three-pointers from Adam Brown and Nixon.
The lead grew throughout the first half, going up by scores of 24-8 and 32-14 before ending the half with the 36-21 lead. The first-half star was sophomore forward Kirk Van Slyke, who put on a shooting clinic, hitting six of eight shots, including three of five from behind the three-point line.
The Cougars held the Knights to 22.7 percent shooting in the first half. Marcus Jordan, the son of Michael Jordan and the Knights' leading scorer, was held to only two points. But the Cougars knew that they weren't going to get off easy, no matter how well the game was going.
"The game of basketball is all about runs," Nixon said. "Everybody's going to have their runs. We went on our run in the first half, and they didn't have a run the whole entire first half. So we knew they were definitely going to make a push in the second half."
Push the Knights did as they slowly whittled the lead down to the low single digits. And with Van Slyke riding the pine for most of the second half due to foul problems, the Cougars had to find some guys to pick up the scoring slack. McNeil, one of the team's leading scorers, who had only three points in the first half, started commanding attention down low, getting the ball low and finishing strong.
Key scoring also came from freshman forward Alandise Harris, who got the ball up high, time and time again, and took it as his mission to drive the lane with the goal of getting points, either by making the basket or going to the free throw line. And Harris halted one UCF run when, after he was dared multiple times to take the three, he did, hitting a dagger to put the Cougars up 61-52.
"I didn't really want to shoot," Harris said. "I was really trying to drive and get to the free throw line. But he forced me, and I shot it."
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UCF got to within three points with 11 seconds remaining, but Adam Brown nailed two free throws to ice the game, and just like that, the Cougars had pulled off one of the upsets of the season. But the win is important for more than just the win, or pulling off the huge upset. It's also important for the team's attempt to bring some excitement back to Hofheinz Pavilion.
"I think [the win is] important for a couple of reasons," head coach James Dickey said. "One, I think it's important for this team to build confidence. But we've got a dream here that we want to fill this arena again. It was pretty loud with the people that we had there, and you fill that up, and it's going to be a very special place to win."
The 9-6 Cougars (1-1 in conference play) are now off until next Saturday, when they travel to Dallas to take on SMU.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The win over the ranked Knights was Houston's first win over a ranked program at Hofheinz Pavilion since a 69-65 win over Arizona on December 3, 2005....The win was a bit of a birthday present to Zamal Nixon, who celebrated a birthday on Friday....The Cougars are 8-1 at Hofheinz this season....Four players finished in double figures for the Cougars, led by Nixon and Kirk Van Slyke, both of whom finished the game with 17 points. Maurice McNeil finished the game with 15 points (12 in the second half), and Alandise Harris finished with 14....The Cougars next play at home on January 19 when they host Tulsa.