CINCINNATI -- No way was the University of Cincinnati going to abandon its winning streak against lowly South Florida, not even in a potential post-Crosstown Shootout swoon.
The No. 19 Bearcats easily handled the Bulls, doling out a 94-53 blowout Sunday at Fifth Third Arena. The outcome ensured 12 straight wins for UC (19-2, 8-0 American Athletic Conference) and nine straight losses for USF (6-14, 0-9).
The battle between the American’s top team and bottom team ended fairly quickly after it started. That is, once the Bearcats overcame two early turnovers and a missed shot against the Bulls’ zone.
“Nobody has played us (in a) 2-3 zone in a long time, so, it didn’t surprise me we started a little slow,” UC coach Mick Cronin said. “After Thursday night, Friday was a rest and get treatment day. We had a small practice yesterday trying to keep these guys fresh knowing we have Wednesday-Saturday coming, so I thought the zone might throw us off a little bit early.”
UC freshman Jarron Cumberland buried a 3-pointer and Kevin Johnson followed suit, but the Bearcats didn’t find significant separation until Kyle Washington rattled off five straight points.
Jacob Evans’ subsequent three extended a run that grew to 14-0 with 8:39 left in the half. It expanded to 20-2, and then an eye-popping 27-5.
“Once we got rolling, once we got the juices flowing, we just saw that we were in synch with everything and we got going,” Washington said.
Asked if a discussion about avoiding a letdown was even needed, Washington indicated that it wasn’t.
“Like I told Gary (Clark) the other day, I said that everybody knows what we have at stake. People on our team want to be individually great and that’s what drives us because we push each other. We really want to make a far run in March. I a lot of people say that about their teams, but we actually live it,” Washington said.
UC led 39-17 with 4:45 left in the half and widened its advantage to as many as 46 points with 5:21 remaining in the game.
The Bearcats won a 21st straight home contest – and 13th this season – and avoided a disastrous defeat by a USF team ranked 295th in the NCAA RPI. As of Sunday, the Bearcats were 14th.
The Bulls have been in a freefall since before firing Orlando Antigua earlier this month and promoting Murry Bartow to interim head coach. South Florida entered Sunday’s outing with six straight losses under Bartow, and eight total counting the last two under Antigua.
The team’s struggles started much earlier this season when leading scorer and sophomore point guard Jahmal McMurray was suspended for six games. He returned for three outings and announced plans to transfer to SMU.
South Florida hasn’t had a winning season since 2011-12 under Stan Heath. Rectifying its issues under the current circumstances would be nearly impossible, as the team would have to win all nine of its remaining regular-season games to finish above .500.
Adding to the woes: Season scoring leader Geno Thorpe watched from the bench Sunday, his left foot in a boot due to an ankle injury. The Bulls had no chance without his 13.4 points per game.
“I am not an excuse guy, which I have said many times, but obviously the injury to Geno Thorpe on Friday just totally put our team out of whack and Mike (Bibby) fought hard, played hard, competed hard, but that injury hurt us and knowing we were coming in here to play a great team,” Bartow said.
UC led 49-25 at halftime never was seriously threatened despite starting the second half with 20 percent shooting, including a 0-for-7 mark from 3-point range.
Cumberland hit back-to-back triples with 14:06 left and the Bearcats rolled.
Bright spots for UC
Cumberland had a career night with 26 points behind a career-best six made 3-pointeres. He rattled off 18 of the team’s 20 points in one second-half stretch.
Cumberland said he stayed after the pre-game shoot-around to put up extra shots with The Gun, a basketball practice machine, just as he had before the Crosstown Shootout win over Xavier. It showed in his jump shot, as he eclipsed his former career high of 19 points against Tulane.
Washington said Cumberland adds “a different type of depth” to UC. Cumberland said productivity has aided his confidence.
“Coach (Cronin) tells me to shoot, don't be hesitant with it,” Cumberland said. “Once I get the ball and it’s a 1-3-1 (zone defense) or a 2-3, there’s got to be somebody knock down the shot. We’ve got a lot of guys on the wings that can knock down the shots. So I know when I get in the game, I’ve got to knock down the shot.”
When UC’s lead hit 40 points, the game became more of a practice before 12,576 fans. Students started calling for walk-on Zack Tobler with nearly 10 minutes to go. He checked in with 5:42 left.
The game took a sobering turn about a minute later when Nysier Brooks fell to the ground and clutched his right knee. He was assisted off the court but walked on his own in the post-game handshake line.
The Bearcats put up their most points since dropping 119 on Fairleigh Dickinson on Dec. 17, thanks in part to sophomore guard Justin Jenifer. He went 4-for-5 for 10 points in 13 first-half minutes and finished with 12 points and nine assists.
“I thought he was definitely the difference in the first half, and I am happy for him,” Cronin said. “He had his parents in for the game, so that’s even better. He has practiced that way all year. It’s hard to get in a rhythm when you are in and out so much, like a pinch hitter, but he’s earned it.”
The Bearcats hit the road to play at Tulsa at 9 p.m. Wednesday. Tulsa (12-8, 6-2) is third in the conference standings, 8-2 at home and 107th in the RPI.