No. 25 Cincinnati escapes St. John’s

In a game both teams really needed, Cincinnati overcame foul trouble while St. John’s couldn’t overcome poor free throw shooting.

A good old-fashioned Big East game came down to the final seconds and the 25th-ranked Bearcats were able to steal a road win, 53-51 over St. John’s on Saturday.

The game came down to Yancy Gates’ three-point play with 8 seconds remaining that made it 53-51.

”I knew I was getting the ball,” said Gates, a 6-foot-9, 265-pound junior who averages 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds. ”Coach (Mick) Cronin called the play for me. I was trying to get as close a shot as I could. (Justin) Burrell played good defense. He didn’t fall for my duck-in move and that’s why I had to take the shot I did.”

After being frustrated trying to back in on Burrell, he made a turnaround move to create space and banked it in as he was fouled.

”Burrell provided resistance on that play with his hands up,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. ”He forced a rough shot. Give them credit. It was not the fault of our players on that play.”

The Bearcats (17-3, 4-3), the leading defensive team in the Big East at 56.7 points per game, came up with their biggest defensive possession of the game when they forced Dwight Hardy into a tough running shot with 3 seconds left and then St. John’s missed a tip before the buzzer sounded.

”He got a look and had space to drive,” Lavin said of Hardy’s shot. ”He’s our best free throw shooter and I had faith in him creating and we even got a second shot off his miss.”

Gates finished with 13 points and eight rebounds but was limited to 21 minutes because of foul trouble. He wasn’t alone in that predicament. All the starters but one had at least two fouls in the first half but the Bearcats’ bench came up big, finishing with 25 points, 21 in the first half when they took a 28-22 lead.

”They were huge,” Cronin said of his reserves. ”We’re 17-3 and I don’t know if the rest of country knows that. They’ve been big all year for us. In 19 of our 20 wins we’ve had the advantage with the bench and in some games it was decidedly in our favor. We’re a team that’s a sum of our parts. We have to win with team effort and team play.”

The Red Storm (11-7, 4-4) took a 51-50 lead with 1:57 to play when D.J. Kennedy made one of two free throws. That was St. John’s problem throughout the game as it went 12 of 26 from the line (46.2 percent).

After a Cincinnati turnover, Hardy, the second-best free throw shooter in the conference at 90.7 percent, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 33.9 seconds to go.

”I’m a 90 percent free throw shooter and I should have made it,” Hardy said of his only free throw attempt in the game. ”Unfortunately I missed it short. I have to get more legs into it next time.”

After timeouts by both teams, the Bearcats worked the ball around until Gates got it on the right side, backed in on Burrell and banked in a turnaround jumper as he was fouled.

”I wanted one or two and we got three there,” Cronin said. ”Because of the way they defended us tough I didn’t want anything with more than one pass. I wanted the ball near the basket as tight as we could to Yancy. We tried two times to get it to him but St. John’s pressure took us out of it. Burrell stopped him three times on that play but he refused to settle for an outside shot. He drew the contact.”

Kennedy and Hardy both had 10 points for St. John’s, which was outrebounded 39-25.

Cincinnati, which made six of its seven free throw attempts, had plenty of trouble with the Red Storm’s various trapping defenses. They finished with 17 turnovers, well over the 10.5 they averaged coming in. Point guard Cashmere Wright almost matched that total by himself with eight. He finished with 10 points and four assists.

”I was riding him pretty hard the last few days,” Cronin said of Wright, a sophomore point guard who leads the team with 3.7 assists per game. ”He’s got to be aggressive and he’ll make mistakes. But if we want to become what we want to in this league he has to lead us.”

Cincinnati finished 5 of 17 from 3-point range, while the Red Storm were 5 of 9.

Both teams came in having lost three of four games. This was the sixth of eight straight games against ranked teams for St. John’s, which is 2-4 during that stretch.

”I knew we were laboring (at the foul line), but we were doing enough with our defense and shooting percentage,” Lavin said. ”That’s what makes the loss so much more heartbreaking is they played so well and counterpunched and got good looks but came up with empty possessions by leaving points off the board.”

The crowd of 5,602 was the first sellout at Carnesecca Arena since Feb. 22, 2009, against Seton Hall.