CINCINNATI -- It was like old times at the “Shoe," even if I can't wrap my head around calling the University of Cincinnati's home-court Fifth Third Bank Arena.
A full house at 13,176 in attendance, in full voice, the 15th-ranked Bearcats team taking on the 20th-ranked Memphis team. The inescapable, bittersweet emotion of senior night. A revitalized spirit enveloped UC’s 97-84 win, even as the residue of departed spirits retreated further into the ether.
Ghost slayer Mick Cronin was asked if it was among the saddest, good times he’s had recently, to which he replied:
“No, the saddest will be after our last game. Whenever that may be. It could be after our opening game in the tournament or after we win the National Championship," the head basketball coach said. "That may sound out of the realm of possibility to some but if you don’t dream it, you won’t make it happen.”
The guys who made Thursday’s raucous win happen, seniors Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson were more concerned with looking out for each other and their teammates.
The three combined for 71 points and no turnovers. A remarkable donut. More impressive, UC only had three bobbles total as a team. Cronin attributed it to taking their time. The aforementioned trio said it was more about wanting to play their best in their final home game.
Mission accomplished – especially for Rubles whose mother made the trek from Dallas.
“I wanted to put on a show for my mom. This was her first time coming to a game. I was just playing with supreme confidence and it worked out good,'' he said. "My teammates knew it was a big day for me and they looked out for me.”
That sense of team resurfaced in the post-game interview room. Most notably when Kilpatrick, who punctuated his final home game with a season high 34 points, was asked about his swan song. Jackson, sensing Kilpatrick was about to go to putty, put a reassuring hand on his shoulder as Kilpatrick assessed the sense of loss that accompanied such a big win:
“Just the fact that I won’t be able to play in front of them again. That’s something that I spent five years basically here…” His voice trailed off as a senior-sized tear creased his right cheek.
Jackson wouldn’t watch his guy turn to mush.
“Next question. Next question,'' he prompted, giving Kilpatrick a chance to gather himself. It might have been one of the defining moments of this program’s climb back to prominence.
No ego. No me. Got your back. Just team.
Which, unbeknownst to some, has been there all along.
Now the fans are back.
Though Cronin couldn’t be goaded into anything other than high praise for the support he’s gotten since day one.
“I remember when we first started putting this program back together. There were 6,000 or 7,000 in the stands cheering their hearts out," Cronin said. "I didn’t worry about those who weren’t here.
"We knew they’d eventually come.”