College Basketball Road Trip: Bearcats end senior night on high

Cincinnati Bearcats forward Justin Jackson (5) looks to the crowd during the closing minutes of the 97-84 win over the Memphis Tigers at Fifth Third Arena.

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Full disclosure: I live in Cincinnati. And I can tell you this, America: Cincinnati loves its sports.

How serious is the sporting scene in Cincinnati? I present to you the Crosstown Shootout (now called the Crosstown Classic), which in 2011 grew so heated it looked more like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out as a bench-clearing brawl divided the city after Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats and Chris Mack’s Xavier Muskies ended up brawling on the floor to horrified onlookers. It was talked about everywhere, nowhere more than within city limits.

What I always will remember best about that fracas, however, was how Cronin reacted: While Mack went on to let the mouthy Tu Holloway take the mic with violent references to zipping the Cats up in bodybags, Cronin rounded up his guys on the court and sent them, mouths shut, straight to the locker room. Cronin’s high road didn’t go unnoticed in and around Cincinnati, and since that game it’s been a general point of conversation among Cincinnatians that a lot of folks grew a lot of respect for Cronin that day.

And why shouldn’t anybody respect Cronin, an animated but level-headed guy who’s rather quietly built the program back to a healthy respectability in the eight years since his hiring, and this season’s 25-5 record is Cronin’s best at the school. He’s getting better and better, and UC fans know it.

Against the backdrop of thundering fans (and alum Oscar Robertson sitting courtside), Coach of the Year candidate Cronin said goodbye to his seniors Thursday night, among them All-American candidate Sean Kilpatrick, defensive leader Justin Jackson and the awesomely-named Titus Rubles. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s Cronin’s top three scorers. So, yeah, they’re kinda important.

FOUL BALL

The impending departure of three team leaders also may be why the postseason in Cincy has a little more meaning this year, and why hopes are higher than ever before. Thursday’s 97-84 victory over Memphis began with a slow boil and turned into a ripsnorter, with UC taking a surprising early 18-4 lead as Josh Pastner’s Tigers chipped away through the first half to pull within six. No surprise? It was Kilpatrick (34 points), Rubles and Jackson leading the charge.

The second half saw the No. 15 Bearcats pull out in front of the No. 20 Tigers, up to a 60-49 lead mid-half with a hammering dunk by (senior) Rubles, Kilpatrick (ahem, senior) methodically dismantling Memphis one drive at a time and Jackson (yep) solidly backing up both.

And that aforementioned sports fanaticism the city holds so dear? Out in full force. The student section had Press Row thumping so hard to Tevin Campbell at a timeout that it knocked out the electrical strip powering all the media laptops; even the septugenarians sitting comfortably in posh mid-court seats were up and down all night. And there, hands on hips shouting orders to his troops, was the diminutive Cronin, the roaring mouse.

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Kilpatrick, the school’s second-leading scorer of all time (behind Robertson), once said he wanted to stick around to his senior year just so he could see Cronin cry when he left. “What he doesn’t realize,” Cronin joked to reporters on Wednesday, “is that every night I let my mind wander to life without him, I cry in bed.”

It’s probably not time for tears; not yet. There’s still an AAC Tournament to be played and early bracketology predicts the Bearcats a possible four seed for the NCAA Tourney. So there’s still time for Cronin to cry. Smart money says he’s just hoping those tears will fall on the lacquered varnish of a two-and-a-half-foot-tall trophy on April 7. And even smarter money says Kilpatrick, Jackson and Rubles would be standing right behind him if he did.