It took the better part of a half for the University of Cincinnati’s basketball team to find its lockdown defense, but the Bearcats conjured it at the right time to handle pesky Samford in a 77-50 victory Wednesday at Fifth Third Arena.
UC trailed by as many as 16 points to a Bulldogs team picked to finish seventh in the Southern Conference.
Samford mounted an eye-popping 24-0 run that sent ripples through a crowd of 7,422, but the visiting team couldn’t hang on. Mick Cronin’s team answered with a 9-0 tear late in the first half and outscored Samford 40-20 after the break.
"Want to know why we won the game? Defense and rebounding," Cronin said. "We had 16 second-chance points in the second half and we held them to 20 percent from the field. That was the difference."
It was UC’s second-largest comeback in the Cronin era, trailing only the 17-point deficit the program rallied from against West Virginia in overtime in 2007.
Kyle Washington led UC (3-1) with 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks despite playing a foul-abbreviated 22 minutes. Gary Clark added 13 points, Jacob Evans scored 12 points and Kevin Johnson and Nysier Brooks chipped in 10 points each.
Here are takeaways from the Bearcats' outing.
Perimeter defense, where art thou?
One of the Bearcats' greatest threats early on was 6-foot-2 guard Triston Chambers. Although he averaged just six points entering the contest, the freshman proved he was not to be trifled with from long range.
Chambers carved up UC's defense with three consecutive 3-pointers en route to 12 points.
He was part of a Samford attack that entered the game averaging just 6.3 made 3-pointers. The Bulldogs made seven treys in the first half, though, and seized control of the scoreboard via their hot hands beyond the arc.
That all changed after halftime, as UC's defensive adjustments held the Bulldogs to just one 3-pointer on 7.7 percent perimeter shooting.
So what did the Bearcats do to curb Samford's momentum?
"Definitely finding No. 4. He can shoot," Johnson said. "Finding him (was important) because I felt like the first half, he might have hit four out of the seven."
He did. But UC shored up its perimeter stinginess by contesting Samford’s shots more consistently and denying second shots, and that ultimately cooled the Bulldogs' -- and Chambers' -- jets.
A glimpse of what’s to come
Brooks battled a respiratory illness on the Bearcats' recent trip to Connecticut. He finally felt like himself at the shoot-around before the Samford game, and it showed.
The 6-foot-11 freshman made his first collegiate field goal on a putback with 12:48 left in the first half. His second field goal, a lay-up, ended Samford’s 24-0 run.
Brooks then started the second half for Washington, who had three fouls, and went on to score a career-high 10 points with four rebounds and three blocks.
"Nysier Brooks did a great job in his minutes tonight. He really held it down," Washington said.
Cronin agreed. Although he cautioned that freshmen tend to be up and down with their play, in this game he liked Brooks' defense and blocked shots in particular.
"He protected his teammates when they got beat, he didn't have any blown assignments and he finished around the basket," Cronin said.
Finding those bearings
Samford threw something at Cincinnati that it wasn't accustomed to: zone defense.
Largely undersized, the Bulldogs tried to deny UC from the lane and lure the Bearcats into settling for outside shots. The Bearcats subsequently shot 38.2 percent in the first half, including a 21.4 percent mark from the perimeter.
Samford capitalized, and quickly, for a 33-17 lead.
"We let missed lay-ups and missed open shots affect our energy level in the first half. Everybody does it," Cronin said. "It’s dangerous in basketball to let your offense affect your defensive energy."
The Bearcats tapped into their energy after halftime, which is when they forced nine of Samford's 16 turnovers and feasted on the miscues. In all, UC scored 26 points off turnovers.
Players like Johnson didn’t let the first-half scoring disparity rattle them. As the guard said afterward, runs like that "are just basketball, man."
"You’ve got to face adversity," Johnson said. "You just have to get through it, calm down, figure out (your) defense, make some shots and let the game play out the way it’s going to play out."
Patience is a virtue
It wasn’t a particularly memorable outing for seniors Caupain or Johnson because of the pressure they put on themselves, Cronin said. Both want to have great seasons, and it was apparent Wednesday in their play.
"Their body language is so upset when they miss a shot," Cronin said. "You can’t play that way. You’ve got to move on to the next shot."
Caupain went 3-for-10 and Johnson went 4-for-12, and they went a combined 3-for-12 from the perimeter.
But the season is young, so what happens on a weekday in November is not indicative of where players will be on a weekend in March. The players will harness their strides in time.