After helping Cincinnati avoid its first three-game losing streak, Sean Kilpatrick has a much bigger goal in mind for the Bearcats in the regular-season finale.
The AAC player of the year candidate will try to lead No. 15 Cincinnati to at least a share of the conference title with its ninth win in 10 games against Rutgers on Saturday in New Jersey.
With Cincinnati (25-5, 14-3) looking to stay in the AAC title hunt, Kilpatrick stepped up with a season-high 34 points in his final home game to lead the Bearcats to a 97-84 victory over No. 20 Memphis on Thursday.
Titus Rubles added a career-high 24 points and Justin Jackson scored 13 with nine rebounds despite injuring his shoulder in the second half as Cincinnati moved back into a tie with No. 11 Louisville with one game remaining. The Ohio River rivals split their season series, each winning on the other’s home court.
The Bearcats haven’t won a league title since 2003-04, when they were in Conference USA. Now they can wrap up a share of the AAC crown with a win at Rutgers and possibly the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament – depending how the Cardinals fare at home against No. 19 Connecticut later in the day.
”That’s something we’ve been striving for the past couple of years,” said Kilpatrick, who averages a league-best 20.8 points and an AAC-leading 82 3-pointers. ”It’s an accomplishment. Being able to have that in our possession and go out and grab a win is something we really need to do.”
Kilpatrick has averaged 25.8 points over his last five games, but had gone 13 for 42 from the field in the previous two before making 11 of 18 shots Thursday. With 2,068 career points, he’s the school’s No. 2 all-time scorer behind Oscar Robertson (2,973).
The senior guard, however, is averaging 14.0 points on just 30.0 percent shooting in four career starts against the Scarlet Knights (11-19, 5-12). He led the way with 16 despite missing 9 of 10 from 3-point range in a 71-51 home win Jan. 11.
After totaling 102 points and 33 turnovers while shooting 27.9 percent in losses to Louisville and Connecticut, Cincinnati reached its highest point total since Dec. 23 while shooting 53.3 percent with a season-low three giveaways against Memphis.
The Bearcats hope to build on that performance against a Rutgers team that allows the second-most points in the AAC at 76.2 per game. The Scarlet Knights also give up the highest 3-point percentage (37.4), though Cincinnati ranks ninth from beyond the arc (33.0 percent) and went 4 for 18 in the first meeting.
Rutgers shot 33.9 percent overall and 2 of 15 shooting from 3-point range against the Bearcats, who rank fourth in the nation at 58.1 points allowed per game.
The Scarlet Knights, seeded seventh in the conference tournament, have averaged just 63.0 points on 40.1 percent shooting over their last five games. They’ve also dropped 12 of 16 since Jan. 1 following a 69-63 loss at No. 19 UConn on Wednesday.
Myles Mack, scoring a team-high 15.3 per game, put up 17 to lead the Knights in the January loss in Cincinnati.
"They almost won at UConn," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "They have good players. For whatever reason, their record is what it is, but talent is not the issue."
The Bearcats won 68-58 at Rutgers last season despite Kilpatrick finishing with 10 points and missing nine of 12 shots.