Banged-up Wright key to UC postseason push

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It wasn’t a sight coach Mick Cronin wanted to see. Point guard Cashmere Wright hurried to the end of bench with 36 seconds remaining in the first half of the University of Cincinnati’s game Monday night at No. 8 Louisville, favoring his left shoulder following a scrum for a loose ball.

UC was already facing an uphill battle against one of the nation’s hottest teams. Matters only got tougher with Wright, who has been recovering on the go from a sprained knee suffered seven weeks ago, further banged up.

“He popped his shoulder out again for the sixth time this year but put it back in and kept playing,” said Cronin. “He wasn’t the same guy.”

Wright being that same guy may or may not have been a difference in Louisville running away from the Bearcats over the final 15:57 to claim its sixth straight victory, 67-51, at the KFC Yum! Center but if UC is going to do any damage in the Big East and NCAA tournaments – assuming they are invited to the Field of 68 – having Wright as healthy as possible is going to be a must.

As guard Sean Kilpatrick said last Saturday following the Bearcats’ 61-56 slugfest win against Connecticut, “This is his boat. It’s his show. We all need him as a team.”

Monday, Wright had his best game since spraining his right knee on Jan. 15 in a 75-70 win at DePaul. His 15 points came on 6-of-11 shooting, including making three of his four 3-point attempts in the first half as the Bearcats hung tough and trailed by just four points, 35-31. Wright hadn’t made that many field goals since going 8-of-11 against DePaul and he hadn’t had as many as three 3-pointers in a game since making half of his 10 attempts against St. John’s on Jan. 5.

Wright began the season averaging 15.1 points per game and shooting 47.2 percent – 44.2 percent on three-pointers – in his first 18 games before the knee sprain. Going into Monday’s game, his scoring had fallen to 8.2 points per game and he was shooting just 22.9 percent overall and 19.7 percent from long range in the 10 games since his return.

He was just 2-of-14 from behind the arc against Connecticut on Saturday but opened Monday night by hitting his first two shots from deep.

“It is what it is. We lost and that’s the only thing that matters,” said Wright. “My shot is coming on. Everybody has been saying ‘keep shooting.’ It’s all about confidence in the shot and keep going out there and doing what your teammates ask you.

“I’m getting more comfortable. The legs are starting to feel better, I’m moving around and the injury is starting to feel better.”

Wright, Kilpatrick and JaQuon Parker are the focal points of the UC offense. Kilpatrick and Parker had 12 points each against Louisville but the Bearcats shot just 35.3 percent for the game, including just 7-of-24 in the second half, and committed a season-high 21 turnovers compared to just nine assists and 18 made field goals. That’s nothing new for Louisville; the Cardinals have now forced opponents to commit more turnovers than allowed baskets made 11 times this season.

Louisville (25-5) has been forcing 18.7 turnovers a game, second-best in the nation, and 31 percent of their points have come off of turnovers this season. Monday night the Cardinals outscored UC 23-13 on points off of turnovers. They had 12 steals, including five by the guard trio of Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Kevin Ware.

“They’ve got little guards and they force you to play outside of your game,” said Wright. “They go out there and try to (out-)tough you and make you make that mistake.”

UC (20-10) finishes up the regular season Saturday at Fifth Third Arena against South Florida (11-18, 2-14). A win against the Big East cellar dwellers would give the Bearcats a 9-9 mark in the league heading into the Big East tournament. They will open up tournament play next Wednesday following a first-round bye.

Wright won’t be 100 percent by then. He won’t be 100 percent the rest of the season but the closer he gets to that point the better for the Bearcats.

“He’s getting better naturally every time he steps out there but I’d say tonight he was probably about 75 percent of his prior efficiency (before the knee sprain),” said UC radio analyst Chuck Machock. “He just doesn’t have the strength in the leg to do the things he usually does. He used to go to the basket and convert. He doesn’t have a prayer now. In another week and a half he’s going to get that much better.”