The formula for success isn’t hard to figure out for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Getting it to work has been the difficult thing for Mick Cronin.
UC is at its best when a few shots fall, it can get into a pressing defense, force some turnovers and convert those turnovers directly into more points. The Bearcats did just enough of that Saturday to beat Connecticut, 61-56, at Fifth Third Arena for their 20th win of the season.
Whether Cronin’s first technical foul of the season aided the Bearcats is debatable, but with their NCAA status trending closer to the bubble than comfortable, every little bit helped.
The Bearcats had 10 steals among the 15 turnovers they forced and had a 21-1 advantage on points off turnovers as they improved to 20-9 on the season and 8-8 in the Big East. UC had scored just 20 points off turnovers in the previous three games.
“Today our effort and energy were much better,” said Cronin. “That was probably the difference as our offense – other than not turning the ball over – our offense continued to struggle.”
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The victory stopped a three-game losing streak and gave the Bearcats just their second win in the last seven games. Their last effort was a 61-42 rout at the hands of Notre Dame Sunday in South Bend.
Junior guard Sean Kilpatrick scored 20 points and came up with a steal off a deflection by Titus Rubles with 13.1 seconds remaining and the Bearcats leading 57-56, while senior point guard Cashmere Wright added 10 points and the final two free throws to seal the game with 3.1 seconds remaining.
A loss Saturday would have had UC wobbling with games at Louisville and against South Florida still remaining before the Big East tournament.
UConn led 29-24 at halftime, but UC scored the first six points to grab the lead. It was leading 35-33 when Cronin got too much of the referee’s attention over a non-call and was hit with the technical. He was so riled up that on his way off the bench he fell to the floor.
Ryan Boatright hit both free throws to tie the game but UC responded with a 16-4 run to take a 51-39 advantage with 9:16 to play.
“I never want to get a technical foul. I just want a fair shake,” said Cronin. “I’m not going to take any credit for a technical foul. Who knows? I think more importantly we started making shots. Now, can I take credit for those shots going in because I got a technical foul? Some people believe in that type of stuff. I don’t know. I obviously don’t, because that’s my first technical since two years ago. I’m not running around picking up technical fouls because I believe in that stuff.”
Ten days ago UC couldn’t manage to close out a game at UConn when it held a late six-point lead and lost 73-66 in overtime as Shabazz Napier scored 11 of his 27 points in the extra time. Napier wasn’t available on Saturday because of injury, but UConn never went away. Boatright had 22 points for the Huskies.
“We’ve been having trouble closing out close games,” said Kilpatrick. “I walked in the locker room and started staring at the ceiling like ‘Sheesh, we needed this one.’ It’s about time that we got one we actually needed. It feels good to get that little monkey off our back.”
The Bearcats shot just 30.8 percent for the game (20 of 65) but out-rebounded UConn in the second half and made just enough three-pointers and free throws when they needed to most. Kilpatrick was just 4 of 13 from the three-point line. Wright made just two of his 14 attempts from behind the arc. Senior guard JaQuon Parker was successful penetrating in the lane, but he struggled finishing those drives and at the free-throw line, where he made just one of nine attempts.
“I’ve got good teammates. They tell me to keep shooting, we’re going to keep looking for you,” said Wright. “No (hesitation). They won’t let me.”
Kilpatrick said: “This is his boat. It’s his show. We all need him as a team.”
UConn can’t play in the postseason because of previous academic deficiencies that placed it on the NCAA naughty list and, consequently, out of the Big East tournament, but the Huskies still count as a quality win in the world of RPI with a ranking of 33.
“The kids were great this week, but make no mistake, they knew we needed a win,” said Cronin.