UC’s road to conference title starts at home

While it wasn't one of his best performances, guard Sean Kilpatrick led the Bearcats with 16 points.

Frank Victores/Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bearcats won their eighth straight game and are 4-0 in conference play for the first time in 10 seasons after putting a stranglehold on Rutgers in the second half Saturday in a 71-51 victory at Fifth Third Arena. Don’t expect any wild celebrations in Clifton, though.

The Bearcats feel like they are just starting to find their groove.

Even without seniors Justin Jackson and Sean Kilpatrick playing their best games the Bearcats (15-2) ran away from Rutgers, outscoring the Scarlet Knights 19-3 the last 11:45 of the game and holding them without a field goal in the process. Jackson, who has been named the American Athletic Conference Player of the Week three straight weeks didn’t play the last 12 minutes of the game because of foul trouble. Kilpatrick leads the AAC in scoring but made just one of the 10 3-point shots he took.

And they still won by 20 points.

"When we walked in the locker room and coach said his speech, the last thing we said to ourselves wasn’t 4-0 or anything like that, it was ‘seven more games’," said Kilpatrick. "That’s something we’ve got to keep working on and focusing on. There’s going to be nights like today. Shots weren’t falling for us but we were able to come out with a win, especially the way we played down the stretch."

Cincinnati forward Shaquille Thomas dunks against Rutgers forwards Kadeem Jack and Stephen Zurich.

The seven more games Kilpatrick was referring to are the seven home conference games UC has left on the schedule. The Bearcats have now won 14 home games in a row, including their first two conference games. UC is alone atop the AAC standings at 4-0, including already owning a road win at Memphis. It’s way too early to be concerned with conference standings but not with how to go about winning a conference title.

"You’ve got to go undefeated at home," said head coach Mick Cronin. "You want to look at leagues, pick where we came from — the Big East — and Pittsburgh won more games than anyone over a 10-year span in college basketball. It’s because they never lost at home. … When I was here with Coach Huggins, we won 11 conference championships at home. We rarely lost at home.

"If you say, what’s the key to winning a conference championship in the regular season? Don’t lose at home."

A season-best crowd of 10,872 voiced its approval of Saturday’s performance.

UC has a real shot at starting the conference season 8-0; its next four games are against Temple (home and away), at South Florida and at home against Central Florida before traveling to defending national champion Louisville on Jan. 30. Temple (191), USF (172) and UCF (241) are all way down in the NCAA RPI rankings from last week.

Rutgers (7-9) has an RPI of 219 but made it tough on UC through the first 28 minutes of the game. The Bearcats led 34-32 at halftime despite making just three field goals in the final 11:10 of the first half because they made 15 of 20 free throws. Rutgers had a 12-0 advantage on fast-break points, though, and had 20 points in the paint. UC’s lead was just four points, 52-48, when Kadeem Jack made a layup for Rutgers with 11:45 left to play in the second half.

That would be the last field goal the Scarlet Knight would make. They missed their final 11 field goal attempts. They had just two points on the fast break in the second half.

"That’s what this program is based upon. For the years I’ve been around it’s about defense," said Kilpatrick. "You can’t win games if your defense isn’t on point. That’s our bread-and-butter. That’s where we get our points off of."

CINCINNATI WINS 8TH STRAIGHT
Cincinnati pulled away for a 71-51 victory over Rutgers, its season-high eighth win in a row. READ MORE

Kilpatrick still led UC with 16 points. He made nine of 10 free throws. He’s now made just four of his last 33 3-point attempts but he hasn’t let this shooting slump affect the rest of his game. He had seven rebounds and drove the ball to the basket when he had the openings. Freshman Troy Caupain had 14 points, while Jackson and Shaquille Thomas scored 11 points each.

UC played its second game without freshman Jermaine Lawrence because of a turf toe injury. Jackson’s foul trouble exposed UC’s thin ranks in the front court but Titus Rubles had 10 rebounds, and center David Nyarsuk was better than his stat line of two points, one rebound and two blocked shots would indicate in his 14 minutes of play.

The Bearcats are playing without excuses.

"I thought this team had a chance to do it," said Cronin about ultimately being undefeated at home. "I’ve talked to them all year. I’ve told them we’re not losing games at home. We’re not coming out flat. I hate that, when people say they came out flat and weren’t ready to play. I don’t know how you couldn’t be ready to play. I’m just trying to challenge them. I don’t care who we’re playing. We will not lose at home. I don’t care what we’ve got to do. I don’t care if we have to hold a team to 30, we’re not losing at home.

"That’s our goal and I truly believe that’s the way to a conference championship in college basketball."