Russell: UC escapes Marshall in overtime thriller

CINCINNATI -- A broken play led to Troy Caupain’s game-winning score, and the University of Cincinnati’s men’s basketball team survived a scare by Marshall in a 93-91 overtime victory Thursday at Fifth Third Arena.

The set play, Caupain said, was designed to culminate with a Gary Clark duck-in for a basket. But Caupain didn’t like the chances of that pass in traffic in the final seconds against the Thundering Herd, so he put up an attempt himself.

It missed.

Caupain grabbed the rebound and scored with one second left to cement a third straight win for the No. 24 Bearcats.

"(Clark and Jacob Evans) attacked the basket and boom, (I) had it off the glass," Caupain said. "I was just right there at the right time."

The Bearcats (10-2) survived a barrage of three-pointers -- 17 in all, the most against any Bearcats team in program history. Hot-handed Marshall (7-5) buried 14 of those threes in the first half alone, and that was a truly demoralizing experience, Clark said.

"The lack of communication, defensively ... they came out ready. Coach (Mick Cronin) just kept preaching to us how offensively talented these guys were," Clark said. "Any slight miscommunication, they found the open guy. And it was just going up."

UC held the Herd to just two 3-pointers in the second half and one in overtime by ratcheting up defensive stops and denying second chances. Clark fueled the offense with a career-high 26 points and 10 rebounds and Evans added 25 points, spoiling Marshall’s aspirations for the quality road win.

“You lose sleep at night over games like this," said Stevie Browning, who led the Herd with 28 points. “These are the games that growing up, you want to play. It’s like your heart’s getting ripped out.”

So what’s next?

The Bearcats are now done with the bulk of their non-conference schedule. They have just one remaining game outside league play, and it’s a whopper -- the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout against No. 17 Xavier, Jan. 26 at Fifth Third Arena.

Bragging rights aren’t the only thing on the line. For Xavier, the Shootout is a chance to add a non-conference true road victory to its resume. For UC, it’s an opportunity to end the Musketeers' three-game winning streak in the series and bolster its own resume by taking down the No. 3 team in the NCAA’s RPI.

There’s much to do first, namely the changing of the guard to American Athletic Conference play. UC’s first league game is Dec. 28 at Temple.

The Bearcats’ body of work is respectable heading into conference action. They entered the Marshall game ranked 46th in the RPI with a quality win over a Texas Southern team that’s No. 55 and an overtime victory at Iowa State (No. 125). Their losses are to two teams in the RPI’s Top 50: Rhode Island (44) and Butler (7).

Those attributes, coupled with an 8-0 record at home, provide a solid foundation UC as it starts competing for a conference championship.

Eye on the prize

The biggest question ahead may be the Bearcats’ ability to maintain focus. Cronin was none too pleased with his team after the Marshall win because of the way players sloughed off defensively in the opening minutes.

“Our guys, somewhere around the 10- to 12-minute mark, gained some humility and started to try and play defense the way we practiced and gave ourselves a chance to win the game,” Cronin said.

As for Marshall’s 14 triples in the first half, Cronin said the Bearcats “tried to do nothing we practiced because we had a terrible attitude and were unprepared for the game.”

“Obviously I failed to get my team ready to play the game. Somewhere I was looking for the banner that says we scored 119 points the last game, because our guys thought we hung one,” Cronin said. “No matter what was said the last three days in practice, it all fell on deaf ears and it showed. I could have made some of those shots in the first half. Nobody was guarding anybody.”

Cronin’s reference to the prior game was the 119-68 rout of Fairleigh Dickinson. The record-breaking performance adversely affected the Bearcats’ poise.

"Everyone thought we might have been a little big-headed. We just came out and thought Marshall was just going to lay down for us," Caupain said. “And they came out and threw a fire Mike Tyson punch. I thought we handled it well. We came back and fought and came out victorious. We’ve got to come ready to play, no matter who the opponent is."

The Bearcats’ vaunted defense allowed a season-high 91 points. UC limited its first 11 foes to an average 60.5 points, so returning to those defensive roots and valuing each opponent will be key.

Free-no

As Clark scanned the post-game box score, his eyes rested on UC’s free-throw tally. The team went 10-for-23 from the stripe (43.5 percent) and squandered several opportunities that would have tied the game or provided separation from Marshall.

"Man, free throws (are) terrible," said Clark, who went 1-for-4.

UC shot just 65.9 percent from the line in its prior 11 games, ranking seventh in the 11-team AAC. The last time it shot over 70 percent was in the loss at Butler, where it converted 80.8 percent of its free throws.

Consider this: UC’s starting five missed nine free throws in a Marshall game decided by two points. Outings aren’t going to be easier as time progresses, so cleaning up shooting accuracy from the foul line would only help UC as it navigates league play.

Offensive juggernaut? Maybe.

Cronin’s teams tend to shine on the defensive end, making this year’s offensively talented group an interesting study. The Bearcats have averaged nearly 103 points in the last three games (skewed, of course, by the Fairleigh Dickinson blowout) and 81.2 points in all 12 games.

Three players averaging double figures – Evans, Kyle Washington and Caupain – have led UC to its best shooting percentage (49.7) since the 1996-97 season.

But in conference play the Bearcats will face six teams that allow less than 68 points per game.

Keeping up the offensive output, and continuing to share the ball well, will make the Bearcats more difficult to defeat. Clark found out firsthand what happened when he changed his approach against Marshall.

"Just demanding the ball (was the difference)," Clark said. “All week (Cronin has) been on me about…even when I slip sometimes, I’m open but I won’t say anything to guys that miss me, so really demanding the ball on the block."

Regardless of whether he scores, Clark said "something good can happen off any of our post guys just catching it."

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