The Cincinnati Bearcats came up with a huge statement win over the visiting Louisville Cardinals 63-54 in front of a raucous crowd at 5/3 Arena.
With their NCAA Tournament hopes likely hanging in the balance the Cats played like their season depended on it and took control early and never looked back. After UL tied the score at 2-2 with 17:50 remaining in the 1st half a lay up by Ibrahima Thomas gave them a lead they'd never relinquish. It was the type of tip to final buzzer performance head coach Mick Cronin had been searching for all year.
“I thought we played as hard as we've played all year for 40 minutes,” Cronin said. “Our problem is we have not played with the intensity we needed for 40 minutes and that's what's required to win in our conference and we did it tonight.”
Much like when playing his former boss Bob Huggins, Cronin took a lot from his days on the Louisville bench working for Rick Pitino. With Huggins it's that attitude attacking the glass for rebounds, and against Pitino the former pupil looks to being active on defense and getting deflections to disrupt the opponents offense. Winning that battle was the key to the game for Cronin, and with 29 deflections his Bearcats got the job done.
“Our message to our team was if we had the high deflection total we'd win the game,” said Cronin. “I told the guys the team with the most deflections and loose balls would win the game. The guys bought really into it and did a great job with our intensity on the defensive end.”
Gates Gives Team Lift
While Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick provided the scoring punch with 20 and 18 respectively, it was the mental and emotional return of Yancy Gates that was able to change the game in the paint. From the time he entered the action with 16:30 remaining in the 1st half, he fought hard for position inside and opened the offense up for his teammates. While his 8 point and 6 rebound line isn't overwhelming Cronin felt his impact was much bigger.
“SK banged in a few shots that spread their zone out and allowed us to get the ball in to Yancy who had a great game,” Cronin said. “His stat line doesn't do justice to how big of an impact he had on the game by getting fouled and he had zero turnovers against a team that was trying to trap him a lot.”
While he often looked disconnected in the loss to St John's on Sunday, Gates felt comfortable once again stepping in to an impact role because of the relationship he has with his teammates.
“No, I’ve got great teammates,” Gates said. “My teammates know because I talk about everything with them. As long as my teammates weren’t down on me, nothing else really mattered.”
Bishop Disrupts Cards Offense
Holding the high scoring Cardinals to 54 points is no easy task, but was accomplished by executing the scouting report to perfection and staying at home on their wing shooters that spot up when the guards get in the lane. Cronin felt he could make that work by putting senior forward Rashad Bishop on point guard Peyton Siva. The lightening quick Siva was held to 9 points on 2-6 shooting and only had 1 assist to go with 3 turnovers.
“To win in this league, you need a veteran who can guard,” Cronin said. “This kid’s the best defensive player in our conference. He can guard 1 through 4 and he’s unbelievable. We made a decision to put him on Siva to keep Siva out of the lane. We have others that can chase Knowles. When Siva came out, we put him on Knowles. We’ll miss that big time next year.”
Gates felt the team really fed off of what Bishop was able to do early in frustrating the Cards offense, but the reality is that is what guys expect to happen to whoever he is guarding.
“That’s his job,” said Gates. “Copo (Bishop) knows he’s the best defender on the team. He accepts that and he comes out. He goes out and guards whoever coach puts him on. He really sets the tone on defense for games like this where there are key players. He is very poised on defense. Certain things you look for, Cash got the energy on offense and Copo brought it on defense.”
Cats Hit 20 Wins
While the climb back to relevancy in the Big East has been a long grind since Cronin took over the program 5 years ago, the team has improved its win total every season since the program hit rock bottom. Cronin is proud of that accomplishment and takes great pride in what he has been able to accomplish so far in putting the program back on the map.
“I told the guys in the meeting on Monday no one is raining on my parade,” Cronin said. “I don’t need to rehash what my situation looked like when I took this job. Tough loss against St. John’s, trust me. I was sick for two days. It is a brutal existence when something happens. I don’t care who it is. I used to have to coach games with kids that I loved, but Marcus Sikes playing center against Hasheem Thabeet? Now I have a good team. We are having a good year, whether anyone wants to recognize it or not. I told my team I’m going to do anything I can do to enjoy it, and I’ll certainly enjoy it. I’m happy with the 20th win.”