Russell: UC thwarts Memphis comeback bid, but Cronin worries about defense
Shannon Russell | WCPO contributor
11:09 PM, Feb 23, 2017
11:27 PM, Feb 24, 2017
CINCINNATI -- The University of Cincinnati's men's basketball team withstood a furious second-half rally to beat Memphis 87-74 Thursday at Fifth Third Arena, but to coach Mick Cronin it was practically a cautionary tale.
If the No. 15 Bearcats play the same porous second-half defense in the NCAA tournament, then Cronin is confident their stay will be short.
"Our defense was nonexistent for most of the second half," Cronin said. "This time of year you're just trying to continue to win and get to the next game. We learned our lessons. We've obviously got to play better defense. They had had 20 assists and shot 54 percent in our gym. If that happens, it'll be an early vacation for us in the NCAA tournament."
The Bearcats (25-3, 14-1 American) ended the night on a high note as they cemented their best start in the Cronin era, extended their home court winning streak to 25 games and matched No. 17 SMU atop the conference standings with a handful of regular-season games to go.
The game itself was characterized by a dwindling Bearcats lead. UC surged ahead by as many as 24 points in the first half, but Tubby Smith's Tigers (18-10, 8-7) roared back after the break.
Versatile point guard Jeremiah Martin played a key role in the comeback bid. He scored a team-best 23 points with 11 assists and just one turnover throughout, and his 3-point play with 5:18 remaining brought Memphis within six.
Martin's quickness was a problem for UC, but the Bearcats' bigger issue was their diminishing intensity.
"I thought we started to coast a little bit," UC's Jacob Evans said. "We just can't do that. If you want to make a deep run in March, you can't take any half off."
Evans ultimately buried a 3-pointer that launched an 8-0 run and lifted UC out of danger. In fact, the Bearcats outscored their foe 12-5 down the stretch.
Gary Clark, who contributed 13 points and led the Bearcats with nine rebounds, said UC's second-half defensive woes stemmed from an inability to match up with Memphis players.
"We weren't getting back and matching up, leaving guys open to attack and making things happen for their team. A lot of times we didn't find the trailer, No. 0 (K.J. Lawson)," Clark said. "He would start if off by either going to a pull-up or getting to the basket or finding somebody else to lay it up. The energy just wasn't there -- the communication of who would get back on defense. When we would get back and match up, we were able to later slow them down a little bit."
Kyle Washington led UC with 16 points and added six rebounds. Troy Caupain scored 12 points and chipped in seven assists, which allowed him to pass Cashmere Wright for third place on the Bearcats' all-time assists list.
At least the start was good
Memphis missed its first five shots, fell behind and never recovered. The Bearcats raced to a 10-point lead and gained a boost from Jarron Cumberland, who returned after a one game suspension due to a curfew violation.
Cumberland buried a 3-pointer soon after entering the game and finished with nine points.
Memphis star Dedric Lawson missed his first four shots and didn't get on the board until the 12:38 mark. He made up for that later by peppering the Bearcats with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
After Kevin Johnson drained a three for a 26-11 Bearcats advantage, Smith called a timeout to curb the momentum. The undeterred Bearcats vaulted ahead by 20 shortly thereafter.
"I got a lot of respect for my kids and for how hard they were working. They battled," Smith said. "They were a little bit intimidated to start the first half because (UC) was making shots and hitting 58 percent and 50 percent from threes, and when you get in a hole like that it's tough."
UC finished with 19 second-chance points, an area in which the Tigers have struggled all season. At one point, the ball actually hit the ground in the paint after a missed shot, so Evans scooped it up and put it back for two.
Highlight reel footage
In the second half, Clark delivered a nasty one-handed jam via a Caupain alley-oop in transition, and the dazzler nearly brought down the house.
"Coach was yelling to me, 'Run, run, run!' I put up another speed and was able to get past the guy. I didn't even know it went in until the crowd went crazy," Clark said.
Clark was fouled while dunking. Fans chanted his name before he converted his free throw.
The Bearcats are back in action at 3 p.m. Sunday at UCF but it's pertinent to keep an eye on SMU, which plays at UConn at noon Saturday.
UC entered Thursday's game as a No. 4 seed in Jerry Palm's NCAA tournament mock bracket on CBSSports.com. The Bearcats were a No. 5 seed on Joe Lunardi's bracket on ESPN.com.
Lunardi, reached by phone Wednesday, said UC is poised to receive a high seed as long as it takes care of business the remainder of the regular season. Lunardi said a bad loss could drop the team close to an entire seed line "unless it's on the road in triple-overtime on a goal-tend at the buzzer or something like that."