The Central Florida Knights were already struggling going into their home loss on Sunday night to the 22nd-ranked Connecticut Huskies. During the second half of the game, after the Huskies got out to a big lead, the home crowd was silenced to a whisper and the players on the court seemingly lost their will to fight.
And then, Justin McBride happened. Out of nowhere came this 6-foot-10, 310-pound freshman center. The mere spectacle of seeing McBride’s enormous stature out there was entertaining in its own right, but the spark he provided for both his teammates and the suddenly electrified crowd is without question the highlight of what has been a way-too-miserable season for the Knights.
McBride, who had just recently gotten some minutes after recovering from a knee injury, showed that he’s not just some big body. He has great footwork, great skills under the rim and the heart of a lion. In just 13 minutes of action (as many minutes as he had gotten in his first four games combined), he scored 13 points on five of six shooting and grabbed down three rebounds.
However, there was more to his contribution on the court than what shows up in the box score. There’s really something special about this kid that you have to see to understand. McBride has a charismatic smile and a particular aura about him. It did not take long for Mike Patrick, who was calling the game for ESPN2, to develop a ‘man crush’ on the kid.
Patrick would not stop praising McBride, who brought what was a boring game to life: “You always want to energize your fans, especially when you’re having a tough season like they’re having, and McBride did that.” Patrick’s partner on the telecast, Len Elmore, echoed those sentiments:”Win or lose, they got something to buzz about going home.”
It is stories like McBride’s that make NCAA basketball the beautiful sport that it is. Yes, the Knights were unable to put an end to their long losing streak in spite of making the game close in the second half, but instead gained hope for the future. McBride wasn’t a top recruit coming out of high school, but he showed in a brief glimmer the sort of impact he can have on a basketball team.
Now, Isaiah Sykes doesn’t have to do it all by himself. In what had been an utterly disappointing season for the Knights, the last eight games with McBride should be fun.