Cincinnati fights off Texas rally
This time, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin wanted to be on the other end of a slow start.
Cronin had caught his Bearcats slogging through the beginning of the Big East championship game last week, and it cost them. So when Texas came out slow after an early tip time in the NCAA tournament, Cincinnati was ready to pounce.
”I thought we came out sleepwalking against Louisville, so with the early start I wanted to come out pressuring the ball, denying, trying to get our deflections, get some easy baskets and really take the game to them early on with our physicality and our intensity,” Cronin said.
The sixth-seeded Bearcats responded by jumping out to a comfortable lead that helped them withstand a late rally by Texas and win 65-59 on Friday in the second round of the East Regional. They will meet No. 3 seed Florida State on Sunday.
No. 11 seed Texas looked as if it had missed its wake-up call and opened the game 1 of 14 from the field. Cincinnati (25-10) jumped out to a 16-2 lead, while the Longhorns (20-14) shot a mere 16 percent for the first half.
”We came out strong, considering it was an early game,” Cincinnati guard Dion Dixon said. ”They’re a young team, and they were probably not up for it then, but they made a nice little run in the second half. We showed our experience by finishing the game off. We showed our experience down the stretch.”
After trailing 31-17 at halftime, the young Longhorns attacked, hitting five of their first seven from 3-point range and shooting 50 percent for the second half. They found the paint a bit more friendly, too, after being shut down there in the first half.
With 3:44 to play, Texas’ Jonathan Holmes hit a layup to tie the game at 52. It was an impressive response by a Longhorns squad that returned just three players from last season and features six freshmen in its regular rotation.
”When we got back in the game, I called timeout just to make sure they understood we’re right where we need to be right now; now it’s a matter of execution, that we’ve got to take care of the basketball,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. ”Definitely (the Bearcats) were back on the heels. They were worried about the score more than we were.”
The message didn’t get through. Cincinnati scored the next six points as Texas turned the ball over once and missed a pair of shots.
Yancy Gates scored inside for the Bearcats, Cashmere Wright drove the lane to hit a shot and then Gates connected over Clint Chapman to put Cincinnati ahead 58-52 with 1:11 to play. Cincinnati went 5 of 6 at the free throw line in the final 36 seconds.
Gates finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds for Cincinnati. JaQuon Parker added 13 points, Dixon had 12 and Wright scored 11.
J’Covan Brown led Texas with 19 points, and Chapman had 10 points and 14 rebounds. Julien Lewis scored 14 points and Sheldon McClellan added 10.
”We already knew at halftime we were going to come back and fight hard,” Brown said. ”We’re always going to play hard, and it showed how much heart we have. We’ve just got to learn how to finish our games.”
After drawing the early tip time in Nashville, Texas appeared to sleepwalk through much of the first half. The Longhorns got their first basket off a jumper near the free throw line by Lewis just over 2 minutes into the game, but they didn’t score again for another 10:18.
A foul by Jermaine Sanders sent Lewis to the free throw line with 7:30 in the half. Lewis hit both shots to make it 16-4. The crowd, which had been mostly quiet up until that point, erupted into cheers.
With 40 percent shooting before halftime, Cincinnati wasn’t doing much to impress offensively, either. What the Bearcats were doing was shutting down Texas around the basket in every way possible.
Cincinnati held a 26-18 rebounding advantage at halftime and had outscored the Longhorns 22-6 in the paint while keeping them from getting a single second-chance basket.
The victory meant a second straight 25-win season for Cincinnati under Cronin, who was tasked with returning the program back to national prominence when he was hired six years ago. The Bearcats’ win total has increased every season under Cronin, and the No. 6 seed represents their highest spot in the tournament since earning a No. 4 seed in 2004.
Cincinnati was coming off its first appearance in the Big East tournament title game, where it lost to Louisville 50-44.
”In order to advance at this time, you’re going to be playing the best teams, so you have to be able to win the games in the last two, three minutes,” Gates said. ”Today I think gives us the confidence, as we move on, to be able to focus and step up and make plays that are at the end of the stretch of the game.”