Russell: UC caps undefeated home slate with Houston win

Posted at 10:58 PM, Mar 02, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-03 01:05:57-05

CINCINNATI -- As red and black streamers and white confetti fluttered from the rafters of Fifth Third Arena, the University of Cincinnati men's basketball team celebrated the end of an era on its home court.

The No. 18 Bearcats dismantled Houston 65-47 before 13,176 fans Thursday in the last game before the 28-year-old arena undergoes an $87 million renovation. Next season the Bearcats will play at Northern Kentucky University's BB&T Arena.

UC (26-4, 15-2 American) went out in style, quashing a Houston team (20-9, 11-6) that had won seven of its prior eight games. The Bearcats extended the nation's second-longest active home winning streak to 26 straight and finished their home slate a pristine 18-0.

Only three other men's hoops teams in arena annals have ever gone undefeated at home in a season.

"Great win. Great way to close out Fifth Third Arena," coach Mick Cronin said.

Cronin said he had a rare nostalgic moment when he noticed banners had been removed in preparation for construction. Although he didn't play up the outing's significance to players beforehand, he said they realized the magnitude after the fact.

Players initially were more focused on the Senior Night salute to Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson and walk-on Zack Tobler. Cronin granted Tobler the start and Caupain vowed to set up his teammate.

"Walking out before tip-off, I said, 'If I come off this screen and you give me a hard duck-in, I'm going to give you this ball. Post him up hard, man,'" Caupain said.

Tobler made good on his end of the bargain and converted a lay-up for the first score of the game. Fans and UC players loved it.

"It was cool, but I was just happy we got the win," Tobler said.

SMU also won Thursday, clinching the No. 1 seed in the American Athletic Conference Championship by downing Tulsa. UC will be the conference tourney's No. 2 seed regardless of what happens in its final regular-season game against Connecticut at noon Sunday.

Houston could have clinched the No. 3 seed with a win, but the Bearcats had other plans, starting with a lockdown defense that held the Cougars well below their 74.9-point average. Cronin said UC's defense was as good as it had been "in a long, long time."

Rob Gray scored 17 points and Damyean Dotson added 10 points for the Cougars, but both figures were lower than usual. In fact, Dotson averaged 25.2 points in Houston's prior nine games.

"The main goal was don't let them score, simply," Johnson said. "Don't let Dotson shoot and don't let Gray do whatever he wants to do. We were able to contain them throughout the zone. I feel like our defense and the way we play our match-up is really tough. Today we were able to keep them on our chest and make them shoot tough shots."

UC commanded the lead early and feasted on turnovers, ultimately scoring 22 points off miscues.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson thought the turnovers and the Cougars' inability to curb UC's second shots were too much to overcome.

"Our problem tonight is we just didn't take care of the ball and give ourselves a chance," Sampson said. "We are a better team than we played tonight."

A steal by Caupain led to one of the most electric sequences of the game. Caupain found Johnson on the fast-break. While Johnson missed the lay-up, Jacob Evans was waiting on the weak side for a stickback dunk.

That ensured UC's 17-point halftime lead. The Bearcats surged ahead by as many as 26 after the break.

Gary Clark scored a team-best 14 points with a team-high-tying 7 rebounds and Caupain added 11 points and five assists. Jarron Cumberland chipped in 10 points in 21 minutes.

Caupain thought he might be emotional at his final home game but wasn't. He suspected the feelings would hit after the game when he read well wishes on Twitter.

Johnson said he'll miss his teammates the most.

"This team has a different kind of bond and chemistry," Johnson said. "I just know in the back of my mind there'll be nothing like it ever again in your life. That'll be the toughest part for me, when I really get to sit down and think about the four years and everybody I met here. Just the fans, the love, the support and definitely my teammates and my coaches. I'll love them forever."