CINCINNATI -- Fifteen years ago, what happened to the Cincinnati Bearcats didn’t matter to the likes of current stars Troy Caupain, Gary Clark or Jacob Evans seeing that they were just little kids. So saying Sunday’s matchup in the NCAA tournament against the UCLA Bruins is a chance for revenge for them is certainly a stretch.
But for the UC program, it is a chance to get back at the Bruins for one of the toughest losses in Bearcat history.
The Bearcats’ win Friday over Kansas State fell 15 years to the day that UCLA knocked a No. 1-seeded UC team out of the tournament in the second round. It wasn’t a blowout or a buzzer beater, but a double-overtime thriller that will most be remembered by UC fans as guard Leonard Stokes’ finest game as a Bearcat.
UC came into the tournament with very high expectations. They entered the big dance 30-3 and earned the top seed in the West Region. The season included a 20-game win streak, a 75-55 win over David West-led Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout and both regular-season and tournament Conference USA titles.
The Bearcats even managed to exact revenge on one of the three teams that beat them -- and they did it twice. Freshman phenom and future NBA star Dwyane Wade led Marquette to a win over UC in Milwaukee to end the 20-game win streak. Twenty days later, UC would knock off Marquette on a Donald Little buzzer beater to maintain what would end up being an unbeaten record at home. The Bearcats beat Marquette again in the C-USA final at U.S. Bank Arena.
Leading the way in 2001-02 was Steve Logan, a consensus first-team All-America guard who won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award as the top player in the country 6 feet or under. Logan was also the two-time C-USA player of the year. The team boasted junior guard Stokes, freshman forward Jason Maxiell (C-USA Sixth Man of the Year) and Immanuel McElroy (C-USA Defensive Player of the Year).
UC was a team that had to earn its way to that No. 1 seed. It wasn’t ranked until December and worked its way up to No. 5 in the country heading into the NCAA tournament.
Conversely, Steve Lavin’s UCLA squad came into the 2001-02 season with massive expectations. Loaded with blue-chip prospects, led by future NBA players like Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono, the Bruins started the season at No. 3. But an inconsistent season knocked them out of the poll as they entered the tournament 19-11, finishing just sixth in the PAC-10.
That record was deceptive. The Bruins had plenty of quality wins and losses, with a 6-3 record against top-25 teams. That included an 87-77 win over then No. 1 Kansas at home. While UCLA entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed, their talent and quality wins didn’t reflect that seeding.
UC easily dispensed of Boston University in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The 90-52 drubbing marked UC coach Bob Huggins’ 500th win and the Bearcats appeared every bit the No. 1 seed.
UCLA knocked off Mississippi 80-58 to set up the matchup with the Bearcats at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
UC jumped on UCLA early, building big first-half leads before settling in at halftime with a 47-37 advantage. UCLA was focused on containing Logan, allowing Stokes to go off for 16 in the first half. Meanwhile, stars Kapono and Barnes were held to just two points combined in the first half.
That wouldn’t last in the second half, with UCLA’s talented team flexing its muscle. Barnes found his range and dropped 16 points in the half, while Kapono added 9. They managed to tie the game at 80-80 and send it into overtime.
A back-and-forth first OT finished with UC having multiple chances to win it. A McElroy three barely missed and Little was unable to get two separate tip-ins to fall as the period ended, leading to the second overtime at 90-90.
UCLA finally took over the battle of attrition in the second overtime. Barnes, Kapono and center Dan Gadzuric, who led the Bruins with 26 points and 13 rebounds, proved too much for UC, taking the game 105-101.
Despite the scoreless first half, Barnes nearly had a triple-double, scoring 17 points to go along with eight rebounds and 11 assists. After the game Bob Huggins noted the talent level of the Bruins, telling the New York Times that UCLA was “the most talented eighth seed in the history of the NCAA tournament.”
He added, of Barnes: “Their power forward gets 15 points and 11 assists. That hasn’t happened since Magic Johnson.”
As for UC, Bearcats fans will never forget Stokes’ effort. The junior racked up 39 points and 10 rebounds in a grueling 46 minutes. He was 5 for 12 on three pointers. Logan added 18 points and 7 assists.
"Lenny showed a lot of heart today," Logan said. “You can't ask for any more. He has a great future, and I love being around him. He stepped up big for us."
Stokes showed total humility after the loss, telling Bach where he made mistakes rather than all he did right.
"I missed a block out, and my guy got the rebound and made a three-point play," Stokes said.
UCLA went on to lose in the Sweet 16 to Missouri, 82-73. Maryland ended up winning the 2002 tournament.
Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford will be the Bearcats’ focus on Sunday rather than Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono. But whether the current Bearcats have any knowledge of that game 15 years ago, it doesn’t matter. It will matter though to fans who remember that game if the sixth-seeded Bearcats can knock off the No. 3 Bruins. Revenge is sweet.
Dave Niinemets is a Digital Enterprise Editor at WCPO.com and oversees sports content for the digital team.