The nation's No. 1 team played like it Saturday night, dominating fellow state power Tallahassee 83-68 in a wire-to-wire victory that emphatically reestablished Central Florida's national-championship bona fides.
The Patriots came out with a new three-guard starting lineup, and it paid off big. Point guards Kenny Williams and Travis Johnson shared the backcourt, pushing 6-2 Rahshon Tabb out to the traditional small-forward spot. The move was a gamble due to Tallahassee's good overall size, but the Eagles didn't exploit an apparent mismatch with Tabb guarding one of TCC's big wings. Williams' presence helped CF defend the perimeter infinitely better than it did in the narrow win over Hillsborough or the loss to St. Petersburg, and the combination of Johnson and Williams easily negated any backcourt pressure the Eagles applied. The early returns indicate that the lineup switch is a great fix for what ailed the Patriots, and head coach Tim Ryan deserves credit for making the proper adjustment. Further, the team came out playing with a defensive intensity I hadn't seen from them yet, an effort that held Tallahassee to just 27 first-half points.
What was billed as an epic frontcourt matchup devolved into a major mismatch. Tallahassee's twin All-Americans struggled, as Marvell Waithe and Bernard James combined for a mere 13 points. The Patriots got the expected production from Ricardo Ratliffe, who turned in a game-high 29 points on 12-for-15 shooting and 8 rebounds. But fellow sophomore Josh Proctor provided a huge boost with the best game of his season, a 17-point, 8-rebound effort. It was clear that CF would have the best player on the floor in Ratliffe, but to have the best two players on the floor turned the game into a blowout. Proctor's a perimeter-oriented big, and he scored primarily on mid-range jumpers, but he was also a man in the post tonight.
Game balls go out to Justin Cecil and Jeff Neal as well. Cecil scored all 9 of his points in a second-half barrage of 3-pointers that helped put the game on ice, and Neal made such an impact it was hard to believe he played just 7 minutes in place of a foul-plagued Ratliffe. Neal's defense and rebounding, along with a pair of nifty buckets on the low block, kept Tallahassee from chipping away at their deficit while Ratliffe sat.
Since we can't go back and change that disappointing loss to St. Petersburg, the performance the Patriots turned in Saturday was the best thing that could happen to this team. That loss means CF won't be No. 1 anymore when the new polls arrive Tuesday, but this win means it's safe to start dreaming big dreams again.