Gritty Bearcats back on track after Pitt win

PITTSBURGH – Welcome to one last run of Big East basketball, at least the way we’ve come to know it. Welcome, too, to the style the Cincinnati Bearcats plan to keep bringing to the conference table.

No style points are involved, just a plan to score at least one more point than the other team. When Cincinnati gets its way, ugly is pretty and most opponents can’t keep up.

Unable to find the vicinity of the basket early and down 8 points at halftime, the No. 15 Bearcats rallied to beat Pitt Monday afternoon and did it their way — with defense, rebounding and all hands on deck — in grinding out a 70-61 win. Cincinnati has three capable shooters unafraid to keep firing even if the shots don’t fall early, and the Bearcats have enough depth and athleticism to win lots of games the way they did Monday.

“We just want to hang in there and stay close until we get some shots to drop,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “Not that we made a bunch of shots, but finally some went down. Our style is to keep playing. We play our bench, use our speed and quickness and never flinch.

“We want to put pressure on the other guys and win in last 10 minutes. To out rebound Pitt is no small order. The more the game went, the more comfortable we got. It’s part of how we play.”

Pitt (12-2) suffered its first home loss in what was its last conference opener before the Panthers join the ACC. Cincinnati’s conference future remains very much uncertain, but that this Bearcats team has the pieces to keep it close, ugly it up and compete with just about anybody is very certain.

Cincinnati is now 13-1, but most importantly it rebounded from its first loss four nights earlier by getting back its bullying style. Cronin was concerned about Pitt’s skill and his team’s first true road game, yet after he was clearly excited by the poise and maturity his players showed in not only rallying in the second half, but totally taking control for long stretches.

“Most teams don’t play how we play,” Cincinnati guard Cashmere Wright said. “Sooner or later they’re going to get tired, start making bad decisions. We are going hard, coming at you full throttle for 40 minutes.”

Fittingly, black and blue was the theme of the day. The game was hard on the bodies of the players fighting for an inch of breathing room in the post — and hard on the eyes of anyone watching. It seemed early that first to 50 points would win; fouls (23) and free throws (a combined 19-of-30) were the main reason the halftime score was 34-26, Pitt.
After a 1-of-11 shooting start and 8-of-27 first half, the Bearcats shot 54 percent (13-of-24) in the second half. Pitt went without a 3-pointer for the game and got just one basket in a nearly seven-minute stretch starting with a little over 13 minutes left. Keeping the Bearcats off the glass was a problem for Pitt, too, as the Bearcats used offensive rebounds from Titus Rubles and David Nyarsuk to put together a 103-second possession in the final three minutes, capping it with a dunk by the 7-foot-1 Nyarsuk.

Rubles’ stat line of five points, four rebounds and three assists doesn’t begin to explain the impact he had in his 16 bench minutes, though two of those assists came on the aforementioned Nyarsuk dunk and a 3-pointer by Wright that extended Cincinnati’s first lead of the game to five. Nyarsuk’s 19 minues were the most he’s played in five weeks.

“This depth we have, a lot of teams don’t have it,” Bearcats guard Sean Kilpatrick said. “We bring a second wave in and there’s no (letdown).”

Per usual, Cincinnati got the bulk of its scoring from its backcourt trio — Wright, Jaquon Parker and Kilpatrick combined for 47 points and were the only Bearcats in double figures — and had everybody crashing the boards. Eight Cincinnati players scored, and nine of them grabbed at least one rebound.

The Bearcats have the athletes and the formula. If the bench keeps contributing and the Bearcats make enough shots to set up their full-court pressure, they’ll be a very tough out.

“We had been somewhat on cruise control the whole month of December,” Cronin said. “The loss (to New Mexico) is supposed to make the guys hungrier, and it did. We have (veterans). They understand what we’re about. It helps to have guys with talent and experience.”