Bearcats hope to bounce back against Bulls

After suffering its first loss in more than two months, Cincinnati will try to get back on track Wednesday night when the 18th-ranked Bearcats travel to play South Florida in an American Athletic Conference game at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla.

Cincinnati (22-3, 11-1 AAC) suffered a 60-51 loss to then-No. 25 SMU last week. The loss ended the Bearcats’ 15-game winning streak and caused them to drop seven spots in the Top 25.

South Florida (7-17, 1-12) is coming off a 64-57 victory over East Carolina. The Bulls had lost 12 in a row and 14 of their last 15, including a 94-53 loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 29.

Cincinnati shot just 34.7 percent against a red-hot SMU squad that has won 19 in a row at home and 18 of its last 19 overall. The Mustangs moved into first place in the AAC with the win, a half-game ahead of the Bearcats.

“We were gonna have to play really, really well for 40 minutes to win, and we didn’t,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.

The Bearcats were held to 25.9-percent shooting in the second half. Forward Gary Clark grabbed 12 rebounds but scored just six points on 2-of-7 shooting. Guard Troy Caupain was held to two points on 0-of-7 shooting.

“They pack it in so tight and they’re so physical, especially in their own gym,” Cronin said. “The key to the game is that Gary Clark had some opportunities around the basket and he just couldn’t get it in the basket. That allowed them to play on-on-one in the post, so we didn’t have quite as many wide-open looks in the second half.”

The Bearcats struggled defensively as well, particularly in the second half. The Mustangs shot a sizzling 62.5 percent after the break.

“We just got stagnant,” Cincinnati guard Kevin Johnson said. “The offense got stagnant and the defense lost some focus on some guys. Offense is always second to defense on this team. We know we’re not going to make every shot. We’re human beings. But at the end of the day, you’ve still got to guard and make sure we get stops.”

Caupain, the AAC Preseason Co-Player of the Year, has struggled recently. In the past two games, he is 2 of 19 from the field and 1 of 12 from 3-point range.

“He’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “He’s the Preseason Player of the Year, a great ballplayer. We all struggle, but I expect him to pick it up toward the end of the year and lead us to victory.”

South Florida earned a long-awaited victory over East Carolina. Guard Geno Thorpe had 22 points and eight assists.

“I’m just proud of the guys,” USF interim coach Murry Bartow said. “Their spirit is so incredibly good. Practices have been great. The energy has been good. Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of games in a row, but they never pout, they never get down and they never feel sorry for themselves. We knew at some point we’d get one.”