CINCINNATI - On paper, the American Athletic Conference basketball game between No. 23 Cincinnati and struggling Tulane appeared destined for a blowout.
In reality, that’s exactly what happened.
The Bearcats crushed the Green Wave 92-56 on Sunday night before a crowd of 10,328 at Fifth Third Arena, fueled by Jarron Cumberland’s career-high 19 points in a career-best 26 minutes.
UC (12-2, 2-0 AAC) led by as many as 16 points in the first half and unleashed torrential scoring in the second half to hand Tulane (3-11, 0-2) its most lopsided loss this season.
Coach Mick Cronin wasn’t pleased with the way the Bearcats attacked the glass in the first half, as the Green Wave grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, but he praised his club for greater tenacity after the break.
“We’ve got to do a better job on the defensive backboard. We did that in the second half and that was the key,” Cronin said. “Once we were able to finish the stop, finish the possession with a rebound, we were able to run out and get some lay-ups and dunks.”
Tulane – ranked 321st in the NCAA’s RPI to UC’s No. 21 – was held to 27.4 percent shooting throughout, including a 14.3 percent mark from 3-point range. The Bearcats surged ahead by as many as 39 points by blasting through the Green Wave’s two types of double-teams.
“We had some good double teams in the low post and we got split by the double team." said first-year Tulane coach and former NBA coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. "The ball was passed out to the weak side and they hit a couple of threes on us. You talk about it all the time, when you try to get a guy back on his heels and you get the job done and you make perfect execution but you let that happen.
“In a couple situations, a guy was too far up the floor and out of position. We went for the double team and missed the cutter and gave up an easy layup. We probably gave up 12-13 points in the first half on those types of things.”
So what does UC learn from a game in which it dominated on both ends of the court?
The greatest intangible of the victory was the Bearcats’ ability to keep their composure against a less successful opponent, one game after claiming a resume-building road win at Temple. Cronin’s post-Temple practices were difficult by design.
“Our coach is always just worried about that just because when you get a good win over Temple at home, who has a decent RPI, you don’t want to come in and bump your head against Tulane,” senior guard Kevin Johnson said. “He’s just always on us, making sure we’re on our A-game and making sure we’re coming to play.”
The Bearcats did that for the most part Sunday night, despite a stretch of sloppiness. Cronin called a timeout with 1:13 left in the first half after Tulane pulled within nine by exploiting holes on the perimeter.
UC found its composure quickly. Kyle Washington promptly scored and Johnson followed with a 3-pointer that gave the Bearcats a 39-27 halftime lead.
Big day for a freshman
Cumberland has had big nights on the college level, namely his 18 points against Texas Southern on Dec. 13, and Cronin knew the 6-foot-5 guard was ready for another high-octane performance.
“He’s more aggressive off the dribble lately. That’s why I put him in early tonight. I knew he was ready to play. I could see it in practice. I could see it in our game-day practice today noon. I could see it yesterday,” Cronin said.
“He’s starting to be comfortable with who he is on this team and then his teammates want him to be a big part of the team.”
Cumberland entered the game at the 16:46 mark and scored his first 3-pointer just 36 seconds later. He reeled off eight points in a 14-0 run that gave UC its first real separation.
Not only did he draw multiple fouls from Tulane defenders by attacking the rim, but he did not live behind the 3-point line as he has in past outings, Cronin said.
Cumberland said the college game has slowed down for him quite a bit. He credited his teammates for helping him adjust.
“They tell me … don’t let people rush me. Just play my game,” Cumberland said.
UC proved it could dismantle the team picked to finish last in the AAC preseason coaches’ poll, but it has much bigger tests ahead. Its next challenge is Saturday at Houston (11-3, 2-0), ranked 68th in the RPI.
The Cougars have outscored opponents by an average 16.5 points and rank second to the Bearcats in several league stats – scoring offense, scoring margin and field goal percentage.
UC has proven that it’s tough to beat at home, where it’s 9-0 (and 17-0 counting last season), but claiming a coveted road win would help its ranking and resume. A victory over Houston would also extend the Bearcats’ winning streak to six.
Johnson is confident the Bearcats “can fight through any adversity” as long as they stay mentally tough.
“Once we do that, play some defense and get to running, the Bearcats are here to play basketball,” Johnson said.