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Ball St., UCF ready for Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl

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Ball St., UCF ready for Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) The winner of the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl will finish with 10 victories this season. That is a major step forward for growing programs such as Ball State and Central Florida.

The Cardinals and Knights meet Friday night at Tropicana Field in a game that Ball State coach Pete Lembo and UCF's George O'Leary view as an opportunity set a nice tone for next season.

Ball State (9-3) is seeking its first bowl win in eight tries, while UCF (9-4) hopes to rebound from a loss in the Conference USA championship game in its final game before moving into the new-look Big East.

``I think one of our coaches mentioned this week that only 25 teams have the chance to win 10 games, so that would be huge,'' UCF safety Lyle Dankenbring said. ``A great way to go out.''

In two seasons at Ball State, Lembo has led an impressive turnaround that includes a pair of victories this season over members of BCS conferences. The Cardinals have won six straight following 3-3 start featuring losses to Clemson, Kent State and Orange Bowl-bound Northern Illinois.

``When we got to Ball State two years ago, one of our long-term goals was to get the program to a point where we could be playing in meaningful postseason games like this one,'' said Lembo, who inherited a team that went 4-8 in 2010. ``To be here as quickly as we are, in two years, is really special.''

The Cardinals improved to 6-6 in Lembo's first season. This year they rode an explosive offense to a surprising 6-2 record in the Mid-American Conference, as well as wins over Indiana from the Big Ten and South Florida of the Big East.

The three teams that beat them - Clemson and MAC rivals Northern Illinois and Kent State - are all headed to bowl games and finished have a combined record of 33-5. Beating UCF will give the Cardinals the third 10-win season in school history.

O'Leary is impressed with film he's watched of Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning, who's thrown for 2,878 yards, 22 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. His favorite target, Willie Snead, has 82 receptions for 1,070 yards and seven TDs, while Jahwan Edwards has averaged 6.1 yards per carry while rushing for 1,321 yards and 14 touchdowns.

```Two years ago when this process started we talked about building a program the right way,'' said Lembo, who's 15-9 at Ball State after successful stints at Lehigh and Elon.

The Cardinals, appearing in a postseason game for the first time since winning 12 and appearing in the 2008 GMAC Bowl, were second in the MAC in total offense at 471.3 yards per game and have scored 30 or more 10 times this season.

UCF, which has lost two of three following a six-game winning streak, led Conference USA in scoring defense while allowing 162.4 yards per game on the ground and 217.8 per game through the air.

The Knights are in a bowl game for the fifth time in nine years under O'Leary, whose stint with the Knights began with an 0-11 finish in 2004.

They followed the second of two Conference USA titles they've captured under the former Georgia Tech coach with a win over Georgia in 2010 Liberty Bowl and are trying to finish with 10 wins for just the third time since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision.

UCF moved from the MAC to Conference USA in 2005 and posted double-digit wins in 2007 and 2010. Ball State won two of the previous three meetings between the teams, including 21-17 in 2004, the Knights' final season in the MAC.

``It's been an amazing five years here,'' Knights running back Brynn Harvey said. ``It flew by so fast, so every moment I have right now I am trying to soak it in with my teammates and seniors that I came in with.''

Both of UCF losses down the stretch were on the road at Tulsa, where the Knights dropped the Conference USA title game in overtime. They also suffered early-season losses to Ohio State and Missouri.

A balanced offense has been a big part of UCF's success. Blake Bortles has thrown for 2,787 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, J.J. Worton is the team's leading receiver with 41 catches for 562 yards and four TDs, and Latavius Murray was an all-Conference USA selection after rushing for 1,035 yards and 14 TDs.

The loss in the Conference USA championship game cost the Knights a trip to Memphis, Tenn., for the Liberty Bowl, however Harvey said winding up in St. Petersburg - just over 100 miles west of the UCF campus in Orlando - is not a bad consolation. UCF also played in the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl in 2009, losing to Rutgers.

``Every senior wants to go out with a bang, especially in their last game,'' Harvey said. ``You want to come out as the winner, and playing in the bowl game in St. Petersburg - in a great atmosphere and a great environment - you want to win here, too.''

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With eyes set on NBA fashion world, Swaggy Picasso is quickly making a name for himself in the custom sneaker game

With eyes set on NBA fashion world, Swaggy Picasso is quickly making a name for himself in the custom sneaker game

Lloyd Ferguson had always been infatuated with sneakers. He had long been interested in painting and abstract art. It wasn't until he was 17-years-old that he realized his biggest passions in life could converge and someday become his livelihood.

It was 2011 and the annual event Sneaker Con had stopped in Washington, D.C. Ferguson, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., came across a vendor table with customized shoes. An artist was taking popular designs from Nike, Adidas and other brands and turning them into unique and entirely original concepts.

Ferguson approached the artist and found out all he could in terms of the process and the necessary supplies to make similar shoes of his own. A seed had been planted for years later when Ferguson would make his own mark in sneaker art and become who many now know as Swaggy Picasso.

Let's rewind a bit. Before Ferguson knew customized sneakers would be a realistic path, basketball was his biggest passion. He was good at it, enough to play at Wheaton High School and later at Montgomery College. It also became a connection to his mother who passed away when he was just 13-years-old. 

Much of Ferguson's childhood was affected by the deteriorating health of his mom, who had a stroke when he was seven and as a result became paralyzed from the waist down. He often visited her while she recovered in a nursing home and, as her condition worsened, he remained connected to her through his success in the sport.

"I wanted to make my mom happy because that was the last thing she saw me doing when I was a kid. I carried that on for her," Ferguson said. "It's just been hard. I just used the things that make me happy to get me through it."

Playing college basketball was an important achievement for Ferguson, but it was short-lived. He eventually turned to art classes and as he regained those skills, he circled back to that day at Sneaker Con and how shoes were the perfect canvas. 

He started by cleaning and repainting shoes for friends and soon realized executing his own designs could be more fulfilling creatively and more lucrative. Several years in, Ferguson is starting to make a name for himself.

His Instagram account @SwaggyPicasso has allowed him to get exposure for his work. The first one that popped online was a Maryland flag-themed pair of Jordan Taxi 12s. One thing led to another, and now Lakers guard Josh Hart has an order on the way inspired by New Jersey-based artist Kaws.

"Ever since then, I've been going H.A.M. with all the painting and it's been amazing," Ferguson said.

Ferguson says his projects can take anywhere between five hours to two days. They require an extensive preparation process before the painting even begins. He will either sketch the concept on the shoe itself or on paper and go from there.

Ferguson's workshop is in his home in Silver Spring where he lives with the pastor of his church. He tries to do two shoes per day and will often stay up until the early hours of the morning to put in the finishing touches of his designs.

"I wake up every morning as the happiest man alive because I'm using my abilities and then putting it on the things that I love most which is shoes. It's just amazing," he said.

Swaggy Picasso is just starting to blow up and and all of it is overwhelming. He next  hopes to design shoes for Wizards players like John Wall and Bradley Beal and many more NBA stars. 

He is also designing a pair of shoes for NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller, set to debut on Thursday night's broadcast of the Wizards' season opener against the Miami Heat. Ferguson will attend the game and plans to wear a unique design himself, a pair of Yeezys inspired by the Batman villain 'The Joker.'

With a love for basketball and sneakers, the NBA is the logical destination for Ferguson's work. He wants to create one-of-a-kind shoes for NBA players for a living and someday open his own shop where sneaker heads can walk in and get their own custom designs.

Ferguson appears well on his way to reaching those goals, but at only 23 is now just enjoying the journey.

"I never knew I would get this far or that people would notice me," he said. "It's still mind-blowing because it's like this is really happening."

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

It seems so simple. The Capitals have one of the best goal-scorers of all-time in Alex Ovechkin and on the power play, he’s almost always in the same spot. He sets up in the “office,” the faceoff circle on the left side of the ice, and waits for one-timers. Everyone knows the Caps are trying to get him the puck, everyone knows the shot is coming.

But nobody can stop it.

“It’s still pretty unique,” Matt Niskanen said after the 4-3 overtime win. “Basic logic tells you it’d be easy to stop, but it’s not.”

Even Ovechkin has no explanation. “It’s all about luck,” he said.

New York Rangers head coach David Quinn had another word for it.

“Sickening.”

Quinn’s Rangers were the latest victims of a power play that has been among the league’s best units for several years. Since 2005, no team in the NHL has a better power play percentage than the Capitals’ 20.8-percent. They once again look lethal this season with the unit currently clicking at an incredible 39.1-percent.

Ovechkin tallied two power play goals Wednesday, both from the office, to help power the Caps to a 4-3 win over New York. Both of Ovechkin’s goals looked pretty similar with John Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office for the one-timer.

Ovechkin obviously is what powers the team’s power play. With him on the ice, other teams need to account for him at all times.

But the real key to the Caps’ success with the extra man is not Ovechkin, but the other weapons around him.

“In order to completely take [Ovechkin] away other guys are just too open and they’re good enough to score,” Niskanen said. “Are you gonna leave [T.J. Oshie] open in the slot from the hash marks to cover [Ovechkin]? Our power play is set up well with what hands guys are and their skill sets so we have a lot of different options. Guys are good at reading what’s open. It’s pretty lethal.”

“Nobody knows who's going to take a shot when we play like that,” Ovechkin said. “And it's fun to play like that, to be honest with you. When [Nicklas Backstrom] and when [Evgeny Kuznetsov] feeling the puck well, they can find you in the right time and the right place -- same as [Carlson]."

With so many weapons on the power play, teams are forced to choose between playing Ovechkin tight and leaving other players like Kuznetsov and Oshie wide open, or trying to play a traditional penalty kill and risk giving Ovechkin too much room for the one-timer.

The Rangers chose the latter on Wednesday and they suffered the consequences.

“I don't think many teams have played him like they did tonight,” Carlson said. “They gave him a lot more space.”

And Carlson certainly took advantage as well.

Washington’s power play seems to have found a new gear now with the emergence of Carlson. He took his game to a new level last season and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. On Wednesday, as part of a three-point night for him, Carlson provided two brilliant setups for Ovechkin on the power play.

“He dominates the game, I think,” Niskanen said of Carlson. “Moves the puck well, skates well for a big man, can defend. He’s got that offensive feel for the game and offensive touch. Big shot. He’s a good player.”

For many years, it looked like the only thing missing from the Caps’ power play was Mike Green. Carlson has always been good, but no one was able to setup Ovechkin quite as well as Green was in the height of the “young guns” era of the Caps. Now that Carlson seems to be coming into his own as a superstar blueliner who can both score and feed Ovechkin with the best of them, that makes an already dominant Caps’ power play even more lethal.

That was certainly on display Wednesday as the Caps fired eight shots on goal with the extra man. Ovechkin’s two goals tie him for ninth on the NHL’s all-time power play goals list with Dino Ciccarelli at 232.

Even with Ovechkin now 33 years old and after several years of dominance with the extra man, the Caps’ power play may be better than ever.

“They don’t get rattled,” Quinn said. “There’s a confidence to them and a swagger to them, which they should have.  They’ve been playing together a long time and they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they should play with a swagger.”

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