With the Big East schedule hitting the stretch run the Cincinnati Bearcats had an opportunity to pick up their 7th league victory against a St John's team they had already defeated once. Ultimately they couldn't get the job done and fell 59-57 after leading 57-54 with 1:27 left on the clock.
While the hit taken to the goal of getting back to the NCAA Tournament is the main problem on the surface, the issues run much deeper than that. Head coach Mick Cronin expressed a great deal of frustration in his post game press conference in his team not paying attention to detail and making far too many mental mistakes.
“We dug ourselves a hole with horrendous defense, not taking care of the basketball and not getting back on defense,” Cronin said. “We had so many mistakes that I'm so disappointed in that it's really hard to describe right now.”
Things went sour right out of the gate as St John's jumped out to an early 9-4 lead on a series of uncontested transition lay ups and a wide open perimeter jumper from the red hot Dwight Hardy. The Cats answered with a 10-0 run to get things going in the right direction, but once again let the Red Storm dictate the pace of the game by not being crisp in their execution.
“I have a problem with our focus and our lack of attention to detail,” said Cronin. “Inexcusable to start the game and Cashmere Wright stands there lets Dwight Hardy shoot a three point shoot in your face when the guy hasn't missed a shot in 2 weeks. This would be the longest press conference in history if I went in to every mistake we made that we went over.”
There was just enough outside shooting to keep the game within reach by half time. The Cats hit 7-15 shots from distance, and despite the lapses only trailed 35-30. At that point it felt like one of those games you were lucky to still be in striking range, but the problems continued out of the locker room and an 8-3 Red Storm spurt quickly had the margin at 10.
Things stayed on that same path for the next 8 minutes, and St John's continued attacking the rim for lay up after lay up. Dwight Hardy's 3-pointer with 8:59 remaining put his team up 52-40 and 6 of the 8 made baskets in the half were scored at the rim.
That shot was the last field goal the Red Storm would make in the game, and as Cronin found a line up that would execute what he wanted on both ends of the floor the Cats ran off a 16-1 burst to take a 3 point lead with 1:27 remaining.
“I found 5 guys that would play together, pass the ball and play defense” Cronin said. “If you simply get back on defense and play defense the way we prepared via the scouting report for St John's.”
What once seemed like a sure fire loss was now a victory within reach, but the momentum halted with a series of missed free throws, head scratching fouls and a lane violation that turned a missed front end of a one and one into two points.
“We give them two points for stepping in early on a free throw,” said Cronin. “We foul a guy that's trying to score against a double team. We foul a guy off the ball on an inbounds play. It's just a game of mistakes. We don't play in a league were you can just win, we play in a league where you make too many mistakes and you're going to lose the game.”
If they are going to make the tournament this team must get back to following scouting reports to the letter, and executing in tough late game situations. It's a veteran group that should be able to get back on track, but from here the schedule only gets tougher. Finding 3 or 4 more wins is within reach if they do, and if not it will be another season of watching from home.