Russell: Tourney loss won't tarnish UC's successful season

The University of Cincinnati’s men’s basketball team collided with an offensive juggernaut Sunday in the NCAA tournament’s second round, but a 79-67 loss to UCLA in Sacramento was not the Bearcats’ defining moment.

It was just the final score in a remarkable season.

The Bearcats achieved an immense measure of success, including a December overtime win at then-No. 19 Iowa State that snapped the Cyclones’ 37-game non-conference home winning streak. UC won 15 consecutive games from Dec. 13 through Feb. 8, tying the longest winning streak in the Cronin era.

Not only did UC defeat Xavier University in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout, but tied its best start in conference play under Cronin and went 18-0 at home for the fourth time in Fifth Third Arena history.

It was a season of personal highlights, too, from Cronin’s 300th win to Troy Caupain’s 1,000-point milestone (and then some). Caupain also etched his name in Bearcats annals as the program’s all-time assists leader.

The team advanced to the American Athletic Conference championship game and clinched a seventh straight NCAA tournament bid. A dozen other achievements enhanced UC’s resume in a 30-6 season to remember.

“Second most wins in the history of the school, three seniors that are unbelievably good kids that have been to four NCAA tournaments that are all going to walk in late April in our graduation. Selfless effort all year by our team,” Cronin said after the UCLA loss.

“Not only did they win, they won the right way, and we’re really proud of the way we win at Cincinnati, graduating players, selfless, doing it the right way with integrity and character. It’s what intercollegiate athletics and amateur athletics is all about. To do it at the level that these guys have done it was awesome,” Cronin said.

The game was the last for Caupain, Kevin Johnson and walk-on Zack Tobler.

Although the Bearcats played the way they wanted in the first half and led 33-30 at halftime, Lonzo Ball and the Bruins controlled the last 20 minutes. Cronin thought the difference in the game was UC’s inability to reach the foul line in the second half after making a point to feed the ball inside.

Empty possessions, coupled with UCLA’s lethal transition game, changed the outing’s complexion and before long, the Bruins’ NCAA-leading scoring offense kicked into gear. UCLA, the South Region’s No. 3 seed, shot 63.3 percent in the second half and outscored the sixth-seeded Bearcats 49-34 en route to the win.

“Proud of my team. I told them that there is no shame in losing to UCLA in California, a team with maybe the top pick in the draft and at least two other lock NBA players and (TJ) Leaf being a lottery pick as well. I’m proud of them. They had an unbelievable season,” Cronin said.

Three players signed national letters of intent in November and will join the Bearcats next season: Trevor Moore and Keith Williams, both 6-foot-5 guards, and Eliel Nsoseme, a 6-foot-9 forward/center. Six-foot point guard Cane Broome practiced with UC all season after transferring from Sacred Heart and is expected to make an immediate impact with his speed and experience.

It will be a much different season next year for the Bearcats beyond personnel changes. The team will play at Northern Kentucky University’s 9,400-seat BB&T Arena while Fifth Third Arena undergoes an $87 million renovation.

The Bearcats will return to their new-look on-campus home in 2018-19.

Players basked in their final game at Fifth Third Arena, a March 2 victory over Houston, and lingered with friends and family after streamers and confetti spilled from the rafters to mark the occasion. It was a temporary goodbye to their familiar confines. 

It’s now a fitting metaphor for Caupain, Johnson and Tobler as they move forward in life.

Caupain on Sunday thanked Cronin, associate head coach Larry Davis and the rest of UC’s coaching staff for giving him the opportunity to be a Bearcat. While the season may be over, he talked about a career he won’t forget.

“I’m blessed that school went well, and we had the great career that I had as a senior – going to four NCAA tournaments, getting through school and being able to graduate (at) the end of April,” Caupain said.

“I’m thankful for my family to have the opportunity to see their son play at the college level. And my teammates, I love them to death. They’re going to go down in my book as my favorite group of brothers to play with. I’m going to keep this group alive, forever it’s going to go down. I wish the best success for the team,” Caupain said.

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