CINCINNATI — For 10 weeks now, the Cincinnati Bearcats have steadily (mostly), surprisingly (to many) and unconventionally (almost always) played like an NCAA tournament team.
Outstanding athleticism, controlled chaos, a lot of chucking shots from deep and an ending that featured more drama than it should. That’s been the Bearcats’ style, and that was the way their 60-56 win over No. 17 Louisville unfolded Thursday night.
Not to burst any bubbles, but the Bearcats basically did that. They’re all but off the maybe list and can be counted as a team that will be playing a game everyone’s watching in mid-March.
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If the 3-point shots keep dropping, they might play two or three.
The stage was grand — and very loud — for the only regular-season meeting of these longtime rivals, and the Bearcats’ win can be explained like this: They went 11 of 19 from behind the 3-point line while Louisville went 1 of 14.
It’s deeper, though, and there’s deeper meaning to how this team has come together. Cincinnati won for the fifth time in its last six games, beat Louisville for the third consecutive time, reached 20 wins for the season and beat a ranked team for the fourth time since Jan. 1. The Bearcats (20-8, 10-5 in Big East) move into a three-way tie for the coveted fourth spot in the Big East standings, the one that comes with a double-bye in the meatgrinder of a conference tournament in two weeks.
That the Bearcats can now go to that tournament and play carefree basketball does not necessarily bode well for teams it may run into at Madison Square Garden. Ask Louisville, which saw its ultra-quick defense get stuck in the mud for much of Thursday’s game trying to defend a freelancing, bombs-away Cincinnati team.
“Before the game our coaches told us, ‘There’s no offense, just play,'” Cincinnati guard Cashmere Wright said. “‘If you’re open, shoot. If you can drive, drive.’ We (weren’t) worrying about mistakes, we were just playing.”
A team that doesn’t necessarily shoot the 3-pointer very well (34 percent for the season coming in) fooled everybody, got hot early and ramped it up again late, matching the energy of a defense that held Louisville to a stretch of nine points during a 10:30 stretch of the second half. Wright hit two of his six 3s in that second half, including one that put Cincinnati up 56-47 inside the five-minute mark and drove Louisville coach Rick Pitino back to his seat with a look of disbelief, to put it mildly.
“Let’s face it, they’re not easy shots,” Pitino said. “And they do it against everybody.”
Wright finished with 22 points and five assists, both game highs. Cincinnati made 11 first-half field goals, eight from beyond the arc and three from close range by Yancy Gates. Cronin implored his team to quit firing away and start throwing it inside to Gates. When Sean Kilpatrick pulled up from behind the 3-point line on a four-on-one fast break late in the first half and missed, every Bearcat on the floor knew what was coming next.
“We felt like they were all going in,” Wright said. “But the ones on the fast breaks weren’t what coach wanted. He was on the court yelling at us. When we got over (to the sideline) he said, ‘If you take another one, you aren’t gonna shoot no more.'”
Cincinnati has gotten similarly hot from beyond the arc before, but not against a quality opponent; Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Chicago State aren’t on the schedule anymore. The Bearcats are playing for their postseason lives, a chance to write another chapter in a season that must feel like three seasons rolled into one.
Way back on Dec. 10 in that Xavier game — perhaps you’ve heard about that one? — the Bearcats made one 3-pointer … out of 16.
Four different guys made them Thursday, and even with an injury limiting indispensable guard JaQuon Parker to 14 minutes and no points, the Bearcats grabbed a statement victory.
“I think we are,” Gates said when asked if Cincinnati was an NCAA tournament team. “We’re just focused on making this last push. … We play better when our backs are against the wall.”
More defining games are ahead. Absolutely nobody would have circled Cincinnati at South Florida as a huge Big East game three months ago, but it is on Sunday as fourth place is at stake. Marquette, maybe the nation’s best team that doesn’t play in marquee time slots on national TV twice a week, visits next Wednesday.
Cronin has worked wonders with his team’s mindset and confidence over the last 10 weeks. He said he wanted his players to focus on themselves and not on Louisville’s ever-changing defense, so the playbook essentially got put away. He said he never talks to his players about the NCAA tournament, one way or another, because they have enough to worry about.
“We talk about life,” he said.
For now, anyway, Cincinnati is done with life on the tournament bubble. The Bearcats can focus on themselves, on South Florida and on more improvement and more firsts.
They’re certainly the first team in college basketball history to be saved by a blowout loss to a bitter rival that ended in a brawl. They’re probably the first team — in a while, anyway — to shoot 27 percent on two-point shots and 58 percent from the free-throw line and win a tight Big East game against a quality opponent.
It’s unofficially official that the Bearcats will become the first team to lose at home to Presbyterian the week before Thanksgiving and go to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team in March.
Where will they go once they get there? Stay tuned. Steadily, surprisingly and unconventionally, Cincinnati is hitting its peak.