ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Central Florida's basketball program has been soaked in on and off the court adversity this season thanks to a preseason NCAA investigation, its coach's subsequent suspension and a pair of player departures all popping up as possible distractions within the past two months.
So far, though, none of it is stopping the Knights' progress on the court.
Isaiah Sykes had 21 points and 14 rebounds, and Keith Clanton added 18 points and 13 rebounds as UCF held on to beat Houston 74-63 Wednesday night.
The win extends the Knights (13-3, 3-0 Conference USA) winning streak to five games, a season-best.
The victory is also UCF's 15th straight at home, dating back to last season. The Knights are 10-0 at UCF Arena this season.
Sykes, who ignited the crowd with a pair of dunks to stunt late-game runs by Houston, said the team fed off the announced crowd of 7,862 in the second half.
"It felt like one of the first conference games with all the crowd back," Sykes said. "It was exciting, and as you could see it gives us energy as well."
Knights' coach Donnie Jones served the final game of a three-game, school-imposed suspension Wednesday for his involvement in an NCAA investigation that revealed recruiting infractions within UCF's basketball and football programs. Associate coach Shawn Finney has led the Knights to a 3-0 record in his absence.
Two players also have left the program within a week's span.
Senior guard Jeff Jordan, the oldest son of NBA legend Michael Jordan, left the team at the end of last week for what he said was personal reasons. Then, hours before Wednesday's tipoff, Jones announced that senior center Dwight McCombs would not return to the team this semester, effectively ending his eligibility at UCF.
"I think it just made us a better team," Sykes said of how the team's dealt with its issues. "Coach (has really been) on us in practice and stuff, still. When (Jones) comes back we're going to work even harder in practice and in the games, so we're just looking forward to it."
The Cougars (9-7, 1-2) got 19 points from Alandise Harris and 14 from TaShawn Thomas, but lost their second straight game after having a season-best five-game win streak snapped last week at UTEP.
UCF led by three points at the half, but took control with just over seven minutes to play in the game when Marcus Jordan's 3-pointer made it 58-47.
The Cougars got it down to eight, before back-to-back dunks by Sykes and free-throw by A.J. Rompza pushed the Knights' lead to 68-56 with less than four minutes left to help preserve the win.
Foul trouble kept Houston's leading-scorer Jonathon Simmons from making the offensive impact Wednesday that the Cougars have relied on this season.
Simmons came in averaging 15.3 points per game, but picked up his fourth personal barely two minutes into the second half.
He sat until the 4:40 mark and finished with three points. It was the second straight game he was held in single digits after eight consecutive double-digit efforts. The team struggled without him, committing 15 turnovers, as well as being dominated 50-37 on scoring in the paint.
UCF also had nine steals.
"We talked in the pregame that we were really going to try to attack those guys both inside and (at) the guards...and get to the free-throw line," Finney said. "That's always a big key if we can get to the line. Unfortunately, we didn't connect at the line. But we had a lot of opportunities."
The Knights dictated most of the action during the opening 20 minutes with only three turnovers.
Clanton led all scorers with 14 points in the period, connecting on 7 of 14 shots. UCF got lots of open looks in its half-court sets, but struggled down the stretch and wound up at 41 percent-shooting.
Clanton had six straight points to give UCF its largest lead at 31-22, before the Cougars closed the half on a 10-4 spurt.
Houston had eight turnovers in the half, but was able to stay close with Harris dropping in 12 first-half points.
Finney said he gives all the credit to Jones preparing the team for his absence for how it's played without him.
''Coach has prepared us for this moment for the whole season," he said. "We came into this game ready to compete and play. We came into the last three games prepared. This is a testament to Coach Jones how our team can go out and operate without him."