CINCINNATI -- There’s only one remaining undefeated men’s basketball team in American Athletic Conference play, and that distinction goes to the University of Cincinnati.
The No. 22 Bearcats weathered scares down the stretch but prevailed over Southern Methodist in a 66-64 thriller Thursday before 11,344 fans at Fifth Third Arena. Not only did UC snap SMU’s 10-game winning streak, but it handed the Mustangs their first loss in AAC action.
"They’re a great team and we know that. It’s definitely hard to just blow them out. They play hard basketball," UC senior guard Troy Caupain said.
Although UC led by as many as 15 points, the outcome was tenuous in the final seconds. After Shake Milton blocked Jacob Evans’ shot, Sterling Brown grabbed the ball and fired an open three from the top of the key. He missed.
Mustangs forward Ben Moore retrieved the rebound and attempted a lay-up. He also missed.
Evans, fouled quickly thereafter, went to the free-throw line for one-and-one with 4.1 seconds remaining. He rimmed out the front end and SMU’s Semi Ojeleye snared the rebound.
UC’s Kevin Johnson knocked the ball out of bounds on a far sideline so, with 1.1 seconds remaining, SMU was forced into a desperation heave. UC and SMU players leaped for the ball.
"We’ve been in that situation a lot of times and we call it ‘defensive back.’ Everybody’s just ready to read on the ball because it’s going to be a floating ball and everybody can react to it fast," UC junior forward Gary Clark said. "So we all communicated back there -- me, Troy and Jacob -- just to try to bat it back into our end or try to get a hand on it."
Time expired before Brown corralled the ball and attempted a shot.
Clark (18 points), Caupain (16 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Kyle Washington (11 points) led UC (14-2, 4-0 AAC) to a seventh straight win while SMU (14-4, 4-1) dropped its first game since Nov. 30.
What went right?
UC had only four -- count ‘em, four -- turnovers in 40 minutes. It was the team’s second-lowest total of the season, trailing only the three turnover outing against Texas Southern in December.
The Bearcats have averaged 13.3 miscues thus far and SMU normally forces foes into 11.7 turnovers per game. But on this night, Caupain had his second straight game without a turnover, which aided UC’s 19 assists on 25 made field goals.
By taking care of the ball, the Bearcats prevented the Mustangs from inflicting more damage, particularly when they closed the scoring gap in the second half.
“Especially versus teams like SMU, you can’t win with turning the ball over," Caupain said. “They load the box very well and they take good charges, or take a lot of charges. We knew if we turned the ball over by over-dribbling or throwing long passes, that would keep them in the game."
The Bearcats also benefited from an offensive burst by Clark early in the second half and five key points by Jarron Cumberland within about two minutes late in the game. Despite a few offensive droughts, UC exceeded the final total of SMU’s last 10 opponents by scoring 66 points.
The Bearcats also buried 12 3-pointers. Their 16-0 first-half run included triples by Johnson, Caupain and Washington, via assists from Evans (2) and Clark.
“We did two things well tonight," UC coach Mick Cronin said. “We passed the ball (and) took care of the ball."
Controlling the glass
SMU entered the game as a vaunted rebounding team and left with the reputation intact after out-working UC on the glass, 37-27. It was only the third time all season the Bearcats were bested in a rebounding battle.
Clark said the Mustangs held their block-outs and continued fighting for boards. All things considered, Cronin wasn’t displeased with the final numbers.
“We did a good job boxing them out. They missed 39 shots (but) only got 13 offensive rebounds. That’s way below their percentage. They missed 36 field goals and three free throws. The problem is, we only got four offensive rebounds," Cronin said.
Moore and Brown led SMU with 11 boards each. UC’s highest rebounder was Caupain, with seven.
Cronin gave the Mustangs considerable credit for not splintering when they trailed by 15. He knew SMU would fight its way back in the second half and was not surprised when the team did just that.
If Cronin had a bone to pick, it was with the way UC played defense.
“Our defense left a lot to be desired. We only had one steal tonight. We only had 15 deflections. So we let them get comfortable," Cronin said. “Somehow as a coaching staff we’ve got to do a better job for our kids the next time we play SMU. We’ve got to find a better way to play defense against them. Because as the game went on, we took nothing away from them. They were getting everything they wanted."
The Mustangs outscored the Bearcats 37-32 in the second half. Brown amassed a season-high 20 points.
Winning despite those allowances was a good sign for UC considering SMU’s caliber. The key will be locking down against high-level opponents in games to come.
Next in line
The Bearcats travel to Greenville, N.C. for Sunday’s 4 p.m. outing at struggling East Carolina. The Pirates (9-9, 1-4) have lost four straight games by an average 17.3 points.
A loss, while improbable, would be disastrous for UC’s resume, as ECU is ranked 219th in the NCAA’s RPI. The Bearcats check in at 18th.
Cronin said he hadn’t had a chance to study ECU yet, but he spoke to the rigors of the upcoming schedule.
"We play Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday. Like I just told the guys, at this point in time rest is extremely important. Taking care of your body is extremely important. Mental preparation is important because you have to limit your physical activity just so you’re ready with all these games coming," Cronin said.
"We don’t have a week off the rest of the year. Four-day breaks are all we’ve got from here on out because we’re playing Xavier so late in the season. That’s the most important thing for us -- rest, recovery, make sure you’re able to play."