CINCINNATI — If Sean Kilpatrick was ever bothered by his recent shooting slump, well, he’s got a one hell of a poker face.
Kilpatrick made six of 13 3-pointers, including one with 51.2 seconds left as the shot clock was running out that sealed UC’s 69-58 victory over Temple Tuesday night at Fifth Third Arena. The Bearcats are ranked nationally this week for the first time this season and needed every one of the senior’s threes and every one of his game-high 23 points to improve to 16-2 overall and remain undefeated in their first five games in the American Athletic Conference.
"Coach has been telling us we have to play offense with confidence and you can’t be afraid to shoot," said Kilpatrick. "That’s something that just clicking back in my mind. My teammates, especially Jack (Justin Jackson) kept telling me don’t worry about it. If you make it, you make it. If you miss, don’t worry about it."
UC is No. 19 in the Associated Press poll this week and No. 23 in the USA Today coaches’ poll.
Kilpatrick is UC’s leading scorer and the leading scorer in the AAC at 18.4 points per game. The 23 points he scored Tuesday equaled his season-high. He has a shot at leaving UC as the second-most prolific scorer in school history, trailing only Oscar Robertson. The previous five games, however, were anything but prolific for Kilpatrick.
The guy is a great shooter. He’s really good.
Kilpatrick came into the game having made just four of his last 33 3-point attempts. He hit two of his first three attempts Tuesday, the second one hitting the back of the rim and bouncing into the air before going through the net. This is the first time since Dec. 23 against Chicago St. that Kilpatrick made more than one 3-pointer in a game.
Temple (5-10, 0-5) has been in tight games all season. Ten of the Owls’ first 14 games were decided by 10 points or less, and they were tied with Memphis with 12 minutes left last Saturday before the Tigers pulled away for a 79-69 win. The Owls were down to seven scholarship players with junior guard Will Cummings not making trip from Philadelphia with a concussion but UC had trouble most of the game finding room inside against Temple’s mixture of zone defenses.
Finding that space helped spark Kilpatrick and the Bearcats down the stretch.
Temple led 49-47 after Dalton Pepper hit a jump shot with 6:43 left. The Owls had erased an 8-point UC lead with a 12-2 run but Kilpatrick hit a three from the wing with 6:27 left to regain the lead for the Bearcats. A little over one minute later, Kilpatrick again drained a shot from long range, this one putting UC up 54-49. Jermaine Sanders also hit from behind the arc as the Bearcats outscored Temple 22-9 to close out the game.
"We finally got the ball inside against the zone," said UC coach Mick Cronin. "We got some interior baskets, which is why he was open for the next three (shots) he hit. If we don’t throw three bounce passes through their zone and get fouled, get an and-one and get another interior basket, he would have never been opened. They had to adjust."
UC also got double-doubles from Jackson (15 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks) and Titus Rubles (13 points, 11 rebounds) and five assists without a turnover by freshman Troy Caupain. UC forced Temple into 15 turnovers. The Bearcats won this game by out-hustling Temple when it mattered most. It’s the way UC has won a lot of games this season, and the way it’s going to have to play if it wants to keep on winning.
Having Kilpatrick get back into a shooting groove allows everyone else to loosen up, though.
"It’s a good sign but it doesn’t surprise me," said Cronin. "The guy is a great shooter. He’s really good. He’s watching film. He’s seeking advice from the coaching staff. He’s played major minutes and has a lot on his shoulders.
"As great of a player as he is — and hopefully he goes down here as the second-leading scorer of all time — there’s a lot of great players who go through tough stretches in a season. It’s beyond realistic to think that’s not going to happen at times."