CINCINNATI (AP) — Midway through the first half, No. 11 Cincinnati knew it could be a record-setting night.
So many passes were going right into the Bearcats’ arms that it was only a question of how many steals they would get. They set a school record with 23 in an 87-53 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock on Thursday night.
Sean Kilpatrick scored 10 of his 18 points in the second half, and the unbeaten Bearcats ran away with it by stealing the ball and heading for a layup or dunk.
“We’re proud, but that’s expected,” Kilpatrick said. “That’s something we have to keep doing every game and continue to get better at. I’m not sitting here saying I’m satisfied with it. I appreciate it, but we’ve got to keep doing it every night.”
The Bearcats (8-0) have become one of the nation’s top defensive teams while starting with eight straight wins for the 15th time in school history. It’s the second time in three seasons that they’re 8-0.
Playing with their highest ranking since they were No. 11 at end of 2003-04, the Bearcats threw the ball away early, prompting coach Mick Cronin to substitute for all five starters. Cincinnati was coming off attention-getting wins over Iowa State and Oregon followed by a 58-56 victory over Alabama on Cashmere Wright’s fadeaway at the buzzer on Saturday.
“We’ve still got to get better with our offensive execution at times,” Cronin said. “We’re careless with the ball, taking ill-advised shots at times.”
Despite their early sloppiness, the Bearcats quickly wore down the Trojans (7-4), who had a season-high 32 turnovers, 18 in the opening half. Cincinnati’s steals topped the previous school record by three.
Trojans coach Steve Shields repeatedly called timeouts to try to settle his team, without success. The Trojans fell to 0-8 against Top 25 teams during his 10 seasons at Arkansas-Little Rock.
“I knew coming in we had to have poise and toughness with the ball,” Shields said. “I thought Cincinnati did a good job of taking us out of what we wanted to do offensively and forced us to play at a pace we didn’t want to play at.”
The teams combined for 54 field goals and 49 turnovers. Cheikh Mbodj had 12 points and seven rebounds for Cincinnati, which finished with four players in double figures. Shaquille Thomas had the record-setting 21st steal and a dunk with 6:11 to go.
Will Neighbour, Ben Dillard and James White scored 10 apiece for Arkansas-Little Rock.
The Trojans have started freshman John Gillon at point guard the last nine games. He struggled against the unrelenting pressure, turning the ball over eight times. Junior shooting guard Leroy Isler had seven turnovers.
The Bearcats could sense the Trojans were getting flustered during the first half because they couldn’t get through the full-court pressure.
“When they’re rattled, it’s better for us because they start turning the ball over,” Kilpatrick said. “(You see) their facial expressions. They can’t get it over the half-court mark. Then, most importantly, it’s the coach. If you can look at the coach and he’s really frustrated, that’s the last thing you want as a player.”
Playing against a badly overmatched opponent for the first time in the last four games, the Bearcats lacked focus at the outset, throwing the ball away five times before the 15:55 mark. Cronin benched all of his starters. At one point, he yelled at one of his players on the court: “What don’t you understand?”
The lineup change got their attention. Cincinnati had only two more turnovers the rest of the half while pulling away to a 42-17 lead. The Bearcats extended their pressure defense full-court and got the Trojans so flustered that they repeatedly threw the ball away on fast-break chances.
Cincinnati’s offense finally got going when JaQuon Parker returned and hit two 3s — the Bearcats’ first of the game — during a 12-point run that built the lead to 25-8.
The Trojans had trouble getting the ball across midcourt in the closing minutes of the half, fueling another surge. Arkansas-Little Rock had 18 turnovers and was 8 of 25 from the field in the half.
Cronin kept on his players all game, stomping his foot on the court to get their attention and growing angry over every mistake.