4 Minutes Saves Bearcats Season… for Now
By Rick Ucchino
A loss at home to South Florida (12-18, 3-15 Big East) would have been a devastating finish to, what some would call, a disappointing Cincinnati Bearcats (21-10, 9-9 Big East) season. A loss that would have been the team’s seventh of their last nine games and possibly even a loss that would have put Cincinnati out of the NCAA tournament. Well, with 4:12 left to play South Florida was on a 15-2 run, had all of the momentum, and held a 45-37 lead. The possibility of that loss was all too real. Some students and fans even started to get up and vacate the full house at 5/3 Bank Arena, while those who remained rained down boos on Mick Cronin’s team. Then, Cronin told his guys to clamp down defensively.
Over the final 4:12 of regulation the Bearcats put on the full court press and forced four big turnovers while holding the Bulls to just 2 points. They ended the second half on a 10-2 run to force overtime. With the Bulls top two offensive threats having fouled out in the second half it was all too easy for Cincinnati to take over the game in the extra session and that’s exactly what they did. JaQuon Parker scored five of his 14 points in overtime while Cheikh Mbodj had four free throws and the Bearcats pulled away with the 61-53 OT win. A win that even Mick Cronin said in the post game press conference saved their NCAA Tournament birth.
So what exactly happened that turned those final 4 minutes around for Cincinnati? Sheer will power. After a foul on Jaquon Parker late in the game Junior G Sean Kilpatrick looked at Senior G Cashmere Wright and said, “We ain’t going to lose this game.” Cashmere’s response, “Oh no, we’re definitely not going to lose this game!” Some how, deep down the two leaders of this team knew their guys were going to pull it out, and they did.
The win gave Cincinnati a 9-9 record in the Big East this season, which is good enough for 9th place. Coming off arguably their best season since joining the Big East (12-6 conference record, Big East Tournament Finals appearance, and Sweet Sixteen birth), many experts across the country had the Bearcats picked to finish as as high as 4th this year. So what happened?
“The difference between this years team and last years team is three close games that we won last year,” is what Head Coach Mick Cronin said after the game. He also said that, “To continue to have a successful program, it’s not a God given right.”
I think there is a lot of merit to that statement. If you look at the Bearcats’ games this season, five times that had games decided by 6 or less points. Games that easily could have gone in the Bearcats favor. Four of those five games were in the Big East. So you are talking an 8 game swing if Cincinnati pulls those out. Instead of 9-9 they would be 13-5. Which just so happens would put them right were the experts said they’d be, 4th place.
Regardless of should have, could have, and would have, the regular season has come to an end. They finished 21-10 on the year and 9-9 in the Big East, well below expectations. Yet, the team still has 5 wins against teams in the RPI Top 50 while having no losses outside of the RPI Top 100. Not to mention, doing this while playing the 18th toughest schedule in the country. That SHOULD be enough to get them in the upcoming NCAA Tournament… SHOULD. Again why this win against South Florida was so big. Losing seven of your last nine including a home loss to a team ranked 128 in the RPI is just the fuel the Selection Committee needs to leave a team out in the cold.
But it didn’t happen. The Bearcats willed themselves to a win to build some momentum heading into a conference tournament where they need 4 wins to take the whole thing. Cincinnati won only 4 games total in the months of February and March combined. It won’t be easy… but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it.
Anyone remember when UConn finished 10th in the Big East, got hot and won the tournament and then went on to win a National Championship? Sure, they had arguably the best player in the country in Kemba Walker while he was hotter than a ghost chili covered in acid, but still, it could happen. No reason G Sean Kilpatrick can’t take over a game or two. Or even Senior Cashmere Wright in his final ride in NCAA post season play. The Bearcats have a date with Providence this Wednesday in their first Big East Tournament game. A game which, much like this one, could make or break their season. Win it and they’re all but a lock. Lose it, and it’s time to pray, because you just never know with the Selection Committee.