CINCINNATI — After two straight losses, the last thing Cincinnati’ s seniors wanted to do was squander a chance at delivering the program its first conference title in 10 years.
After Thursday night’s 97-84 win against Memphis, the 15th-ranked Bearcats are in prime position to do just that.
On Senior Night at Fifth Third Arena, the three senior starters had their best effort of the season, scoring 71 points. Sean Kilpatrick had a season high 34, Titus Rubles added a career high 24 and Justin Jackson had 13 points and nine rebounds.
With a win at Rutgers on Saturday, the Bearcats (25-5, 14-3 American) are assured of at least a co-championship. If UConn can beat Louisville, UC would have it outright along with the top seed in next week’s conference tournament.
"It would mean a lot. It is something we have been striving for since day one," Kilpatrick said. "It’s an accomplishment and being able to have that in our possession and being able to go out there and grab a win it is something we need to do. It is something we deserve."
It was an emotional night for Kilpatrick, who cried, as he was the last of the five seniors to be introduced during pregame ceremonies. Coach Mick Cronin, who said he doesn’t get emotional on Senior Night, almost lost it too but bit his lower lip to suppress the tears.
Kilpatrick scored 22 of his 34 points in the second half, making 6 of 7 from the field and going 10 of 11 from the line. It was the third time in his career he has scored 30-plus and was two off a career high.
After the game ended, the second-leading scorer in UC history raced down both ends of the floor, got up on one of the media tables and saluted the students. When Kilpatrick arrived on campus, a crowd of 8,000 would be considered good. Thursday’s matchup of Top 20 teams drew 13,176 and was the third-straight sellout, which is the first time that has happened since 2004-05.
Kilpatrick got emotional again, knowing that he wouldn’t play in front of them again. Jackson, being the good teammate, quickly told reporters to ask the next question.
Jackson, who also got emotional during pregame ceremonies, was a force inside early with 11 points. He was out some of the second half after his shoulder popped out of place on a drive to the basket but was back by the midway point.
With a habit of getting into foul trouble, that wasn’t a problem against Memphis.
The biggest surprise of the night was Rubles. With his mom making the trip to Cincinnati for the first time, Rubles was 9 of 13 from the line and made all six of his free throws. His previous career high was 14 earlier this season, but he got his 16th point in style with a dunk off a Troy Caupain assist with 11:13 remaining.
"I wanted to come out and put on a show and do that for my mom," Rubles said. "I was just playing with supreme confidence. My teammates knew today was a big day, so they looked out for me."
The emergence of Rubles, who is known more as a defensive player, could bode well for the Bearcats going into the conference and NCAA tournaments.
Said Kilpatrick of Rubles: "He plays defense but he’s an offensive player. He may not have displayed that the last two years because he came in and did his job, but if you leave him open, it might be over for you. We know with the ball in his hands something good is going to happen."
The Bearcats took a 18-4 lead early in the first half, but the 20th-ranked Tigers (22-8, 11-6 American) started chipping away before trailing by six (38-32) at halftime. Memphis got within one three times in the second half, but were never able to take the lead. Joe Jackson led the Tigers with 21 and Austin Nichols added 17.
"Obviously it couldn’t have been a better night for our seniors. Seventy-one points and no turnovers is comical, it is impossible, especially in a fast-paced game," Cronin said. "Their will was tremendous tonight and it really has been all year."
For a senior class that has delivered 99 wins and on the verge of four straight NCAA appearances, a conference title will be huge. Cronin continues to preach the program’s underdog status, noting that SMU plays Memphis and Louisville hosts UConn while the Bearcats go to Rutgers at noon on Saturday.
"This year it would be huge because it’s a big-time league with the five teams at the top," he said. "If you win a championship that banner will always be there and you can bring your kids back to tell them ‘hey I was a part of that team’."