CINCINNATI — Sean Kilpatrick wasn’t feeling good. Whatever bug he caught after returning from Louisville Thursday night was still weighing down the University of Cincinnati senior guard on Sunday.
"He’s sick," said teammate Justin Jackson.
Kilpatrick perked up enough to score 10 of his game-high 18 points during the Bearcats’ decisive 12-4 run over the final six minutes, 13 seconds as they rallied to beat unheralded South Florida 50-45 at Fifth Third Arena, stretch their winning streak to 14 games and improve to 21-2 overall and 10-0 in the American Athletic Conference. Three days after earning their biggest win of the season over rival Louisville, the Bearcats were able to fight off South Florida with a similar determination even if it wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing to watch or as emotionally lifting.
It’s not surprising that Kilpatrick, bug and all, was leading the way.
"He may be the most underrated great player to play here," said coach Mick Cronin. "I was really happy for him Thursday night. I think it woke people nationally to who he is."
Not as many people were watching Sunday afternoon as Kilpatrick made all six free throws he attempted and twice drove with purpose to the basket for layups during the final stretch. Kilpatrick made just three of his first 14 field goal attempts, but when things mattered most he was at his best. Kilpatrick scored 28 points in the 69-66 win at Louisville, including 23 points in the second half. He was perfect on all 11 free throw attempts he took against the Cardinals.
"SK is SK. He’s going to come and perform every night, sick or not sick he’s going to play basketball. That’s what he loves to do," said Jackson, who had 15 points and six rebounds. "This was bigger than Louisville. Coming off a big win like that everyone thinks you’re going to let up and take the L (loss) at home but we’re trying to show the world we’re not playing and we’re really here to win and we’re here to be the best team we can be."
Kilpatrick is averaging 19.4 points a game, which leads the AAC, and now has 1,891 points in his career. He moved past Danny Fortson (1,881) and Deonta Vaughn (1,885) into third place on UC’s all-time scoring list on Sunday. He’s well on pace to surpass Steve Logan (1,985) and finish his career second only to Oscar Robertson’s total of 2,973 points. He has scored in double figures in all but one game this season and he’s had at least 18 points in all but six of UC’s 23 games.
He’s averaged 22.5 points a game over the last six games.
While South Florida is now just 11-11 on the season and near the bottom of the AAC standings at 2-7, the Bulls offered a difficult matchup for UC. They are bigger than the Bearcats on the inside both in height and mass. UC beat South Florida by just seven points, 61-54, two weeks ago in Tampa. Eight of the last 10 games the teams have played have been decided by eight points or less.
As frantic of a pace that Louisville wants to set, that’s how deliberate South Florida is.
"Their size and athleticism is a problem for us," said Cronin. "If we’re not able to turn South Florida over and get out on the break and they get deliberate in the half court, that’s a problem."
UC forced just 10 turnovers by the Bulls, although those did lead to 17 points. UC also didn’t shoot well, going 17 of 51 from the field and making just four of the 17 3-pointers it attempted. The Bearcats did outrebound USF 33-31 and kept the Bulls off the offensive boards for the most part.
Ultimately, their better talent won out. Kilpatrick is at the head of that talent list.
"He’s not gotten the attention (but) he’s clearly the player of the year in this league 10 games in," said Cronin. "Obviously there are eight games to go but he’s clearly the player of the year in this league with everything he does for our team. That’s saying a lot because there are some real players in this league."