The Cincinnati Bearcats have been pointing to Big East play since practice started in the fall, and tonight it finally arrived with a 76-60 victory over DePaul in 5/3 Arena.
Mick Cronin (photo credit: Brian Baker/Lacking Focus Photography
After a slow start that saw the Cats trail 6-1 with just over 4 minutes off the clock, the team exploded on a 34-6 run that put them in total control of the game. Senior guard Larry Davis led the charge by hitting perimeter shots and providing a spark on the defensive end on his way to a 20 point performance.
From that point, however, the Bearcats took their foot off the gas and turned what could have been a huge statement victory to open conference play into a teaching lesson leading up to the Seton Hall game on New Years Eve. Head coach Mick Cronin was not happy with his squad’s effort on the defensive end after building the big lead.
“I didn't think we played particularly well in the 2nd half defensively” Cronin said. “Never happy when you give up 39 points in a half and it was all because we didn't defend the paint. They scored 20 points in the paint in the 2nd half, that's unacceptable in our book.”
Junior forward Yancy Gates scored 15 points and pulled down 6 rebounds on the night, but he was more focused on what went wrong after holding a 40-21 halftime lead.
“They came out more aggressive where we didn't,” said Gates. “That's just like early in the season coming out in the 2nd half focused. Not looking at the score board or how many points we're up. Just coming out and trying to win the game, both halves.”
For about 12 minutes it looked like the Bearcats were on a mission to send a message those who doubted their 12-0 record, but Cronin felt they failed to drive home that point down the stretch.
“If they did they should have stayed focused in the final 22 minutes.”
While there was a feeling of unfinished business from the Cats after a 16 point victory, DePaul coach Oliver Purnell was impressed enough with what he saw to feel his opponent deserved a spot in the Top 25 rankings.
“What don't they have, really? They've got good guards, size in the back court, good quickness, a low post threat that can score on anybody,” Purnell said. “I like what they do defensively. I like their team a lot.”
After 4 seasons where any 16 point Big East win was reason for celebration, Cronin knows he has a team that needs to expect more from themselves. Part of that challenge is to keep improving throughout the Big East gauntlet. Tonight was step one in a long journey, and there is plenty of room to grow before they take step two on Friday.
“I feel like the sky's the limit for this team if we do two things” Cronin said. “Stay unselfish, and care about winning only and #2 we have got to get tougher. The Big East is a physical battle royal and we didn't display any toughness in the 2nd half on the defensive backboard.”