Sweat, frustration, disappointment and humiliation were all fixed on center Justin McBride’s face following a 67-41 loss to the UConn Huskies this past Sunday.
After their second-series sweep of a conference opponent, starting 4-0 in conference play, the Knights took a tumble, losing three games in a row in the past two weeks, to Tulsa on the road and to Memphis and UConn at home.
“I was dead, I had no legs, I was done [and] that was with 10 minutes left to go in the game,” McBride said following the 97-86 loss to Memphis. “I’m frustrated with myself because I let my team down. I came a long way, but I still have a long way to go.”
Despite a big performance from McBride — the junior posted 20 points, five rebounds and two blocks in 24 minutes off the bench — he put the loss on himself.
“I’m not [going to] let this happen again,” he said.
Next came a 67-41 loss to UConn. And thus, the march to the top of the conference standings was quickly met with a steep fall.
But McBride isn’t making any excuses.
“Every night you’re [going to] play someone else, potentially top 25 competition,” McBride said. “They put on their shorts the same way we put on our shorts. They put on their jerseys the same way we put on our jerseys.”
In the game against UConn, McBride and redshirt sophomore guard/forward A.J. Davis were atop the scouting report of guys to take out of the game. UConn ultimately accomplished its goals versus UCF, holding the team to a season-low 24 percent shooting, while McBride struggled with a mere four points, three rebounds and four fouls in 14 minutes of play.
“We got to lock up. I take that personally,” McBride said. “As bigs, we just got to do a better job and we can’t allow however many points they got. We can’t blame it on the guards, we can’t blame it on the coaches. It has to be an individual effort, every possession, defensively just buckling down and we got to do better.”
Despite the Knights’ rough stretch, McBride has seen recent success in his individual play.
“He’s starting to embrace work. He’s starting to show up 30 minutes [early] instead of feeling punished,” head coach Donnie Jones said. “He feels like, ‘Hey, I’m getting better, I’m buying into this.’ And not only is he buying into it, he’s breathing life into Tacko.”
As a senior at Bradford High School, he was the go-to guy, providing 20.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game. But after a freak lower-leg injury and inconsistent playing time, McBride found it hard to recreate that dominance.
McBride believes that the major key to his recent success and refocus on a solid work ethic has been trust. That trust, Jones said, stems from McBride’s hard work as a leader on the court.
“My coaches just trust me, my teammates trust me,” McBride said. “Coach Jones always sees what I could be. Not what I was at the moment, but what I could be. That meant so much to me. Just that trust from coach that just gives you a whole other level and then that trust from your teammates makes you want to push harder.”
As a 6-foot-10, 325-pound center, he’s always been established in the paint as a force to be reckoned with. But for the first time in his collegiate career, he’s established himself in a consistent role.
Earning an American Athletic Conference honor in January, McBride has averaged 12 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game on 64 percent shooting in 20 minutes of action since conference play first opened — a big leap from the 6.8 points, five rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game he was averaging this time last year.
McBride and company will attempt to get back on track as they spend time on the road taking on Tulane on Feb. 4, after which the Knights will take on Temple on Feb. 6 and Cincinnati on Feb. 9.
Christopher Davis is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future.