CINCINNATI -- The University of Cincinnati’s men’s basketball team thumped Tulsa 80-60 Saturday afternoon, but the most memorable aspect of the game was Mick Cronin’s 300th career victory.
Players surrounded Cronin after the final buzzer at Fifth Third Arena, smiling and cheering as he held a commemorative basketball. Cronin improved to 300-156 in 14 seasons, including a 231-132 mark with the Bearcats.
Cronin asked players to sign the ball but downplayed the milestone in his post-game press conference. He said he doesn’t talk to the Bearcats “about stuff like that” and is more focused on making a run in March.
“I have been fortunate. I grew up with great coaches. I had my father, Jim Leon was the cream of the crop when I worked for him at Woodward and, obviously, Bob Huggins and Rick Pitino. I have been around what it takes to win,” Cronin said.
Cronin’s players were more overtly proud.
“How young he is and how driven he is, it’s really nice to be there for him and win this 300th game for him. He’s done so much for all of us so we just appreciate him at all times,” Kyle Washington said.
Said Jacob Evans: “Knowing him, he’s just going to stay hungry. I feel like it’s his mindset. He has 300 now, he probably wants to get 300 more. He always has that chip on his shoulder and I feel like we feed off that.”
The Bearcats (24-3, 13-1 American) rallied from an 11-point deficit in their Feb. 1 game at Tulsa, winning on a Troy Caupain jumper in the last 4 seconds, but the rematch was considerably different.
Tulsa (12-14, 6-8) trailed by as many as 27 points and never came within striking range down the stretch.
Back to defensive basics
The Bearcats hammered home their versatile and productive offense behind five double-figure scorers. Washington led the way with 18 points, Evans added 17 points, Kevin Johnson scored 15, Gary Clark chipped in 14 points with a team-best eight rebounds and Caupain chipped in 11 points and eight assists.
Two things helped UC surge ahead: Better defense and fewer second-half turnovers.
“Our defense was a tale of two halves. We did not defend real well in the first half. The second half, the kids made a concerted effort to do a much better job of listening to Coach (Antwon) Jackson’s excellent – as always – scouting report,” Cronin said.
Cronin said keeping Sterling Taplin out of the lane was the difference. The guard penetrated the lane often in the first half and capped the frame with a lay-up off a turnover.
UC committed nine first-half turnovers and the Golden Hurricane amassed nine points off them. The Bearcats shot 62.5 percent in the half so had they taken care of the ball better, they may have had a larger halftime lead than 38-32.
“Obviously Coach values not turning the ball over and we value it too,” Washington said. “(At halftime) he was just worrying about our defensive intensity and effort. He really doesn’t get on us for mistakes. He just gets on us for hustle. And if you make a mistake then just make up for it by going 10 times harder.”
UC did just that in the second half. It held Tulsa to just 28 second-half points on 37.5 percent shooting.
Junior Etou, who scored 14 first-half points, didn’t score again until about three minutes remained in the game. He finished with a team-best 22 points and eight rebounds.
“He kind of put his trigger away until late in the game and we need to get him understanding he can’t go away. He can’t hide. He has got to continue to be assertive,” Tulsa coach Frank Haith said.
In the meantime, the Bearcats mounted a 16-2 run that ensured a 20-point lead. Tulsa never recovered as the run expanded to 26-5.
UC aided its efforts by committing just four turnovers after halftime.
Even though the Bearcats played without Jarron Cumberland, sidelined by a curfew violation, they wore down Tulsa with better depth and talent.
UC’s ability to marry a productive offense with a program-trademark stingy defense has served it well most of the season. The challenge is to keep those strengths going.
Washington referenced UC’s determination when addressing its 29-20 advantage on the glass. The Bearcats scored 14 second-chance points throughout.
“(Cronin) keeps on telling our team and a message to me that talent’s not our problem and you’re going to lose close games if you don’t do the hard-nosed stuff,” Washington said.
Washington said he plans to focus on those details the rest of the season.
UC has won 24 straight home games, the longest streak under Cronin, and will attempt to expand the number in Thursday’s 7 p.m. conference game versus Memphis at Fifth Third Arena. Tubby Smith’s team (18-9, 7-6) has lost two straight.