CINCINNATI — Connecticut’s Niels Giffey got a shot off, a 3-point attempt from the right corner that could have tied the game with less than 10 seconds to play but he did so under duress. Justin Jackson’s hand was flying at him. It seems that one Cincinnati Bearcat basketball player is always flying at someone or is up in their opponent’s grill when they need be.
That’s how this team has to play to win. That’s how this team has played for the last 15 games, all wins.
There is nothing phony about the Bearcats. They aren’t going to overwhelm anyone with their offensive prowess, although they’re finding a few extra helpers along the way. They make other teams play under duress.
For about 25 minutes Thursday night, it was UConn who had UC feeling a little tight but the Bearcats clamped down on the Huskies, holding UConn to 16 points over the final 15 minutes in a 63-58 victory at Fifth Third Arena. With each win the Bearcats, ranked No. 7 nationally and now 22-2 and 11-0 in the American Athletic Conference, add to their resume for the upcoming postseason.
This was the kind of game UC is going to see in the postseason, whether it comes in the AAC tournament or the NCAA. Teams are going to have players like UConn (17-5, 5-4) has in guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Last week it was Louisville with guard Russ Smith and forward Montrezl Harrell, two big contributors to the Cardinals winning last year’s national championship.
UConn led 31-21 with 2:18 left in the first half. It was the largest deficit Cincinnati has faced since its last loss against Xavier on Dec. 14. SMU had the Bearcats down by eight points back on Jan. 1 but UC came back to win that game 65-57. The Bearcats still trailed 42-34 with 15:07 left when Omar Calhoun hitter a jumper for UConn.
"UConn came to play tonight, which is not a surprise," said UC coach Mick Cronin. "You’re not going to play perfect for 40 minutes. You only have to win by one. The only stat that matters if you win or lose. You don’t have to play perfect. The best trait you can have as a team is not your field goal percentage defense, it’s your ability to win games.
I am playing to win
"This team’s ability to get stops in the second half and hold them to 32 percent is the reason why we won."
Sean Kilpatrick led all scorers with 26 points. He had 17 in the second half. He also had 12 rebounds — a career-high total — with eight of them coming in the second half and six assists. Kilpatrick is the leading choice to earn AAC Player of the Year honors. He’s averaging 23.0 points over his last seven games but when he walked into the post-game press conference and saw the stat sheet for the first time, it was his rebounding totals that immediately popped out to him.
"I am playing to win," said Kilpatrick. "I don’t care about points. I don’t care about any of that. Being able to just help my team and put them in the best situation. That is something that leaders do."
It was a Kilpatrick 3-pointer coming off a screen on an inbounds play with 5:21 left that gave the Bearcats the lead for good, 50-48. He sealed the win with two free throws with 4.8 seconds left.
This team is much more than Kilpatrick.
Titus Rubles had two points and no rebounds in the first half but hit two free throws with 25.8 seconds left and grabbed five rebounds in the second half. Ge’Lawn Guyn had a season-high four assists and just one turnover to go along with seven points and five rebounds while playing defense against Napier most of the night. Jackson had 15 points, six rebounds and two more blocked shots, while freshman Jermaine Lawrence played nine valuable minutes in his first game back after missing the last eight games with a turf toe injury.
"I told these guys that it would be a grind from the beginning, so we just wanted to pull out the win," said Cronin. "The win was all that matters, and that’s what I’m trying to beat into our heads. The winning streak doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we find a way to win. We can’t let statistics affect us or individual play affect us.
"Right now we have tremendous focus. Everyone is worried about getting the win more than their own stats. If we stay that way, we will have success. That is the biggest challenge when coaching team sports. It’s tough getting everyone focused on winning, which is why I am enjoying this season so much."