CINCINNATI – University of Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin had just one word to sum up the Bearcats’ deflection count in Saturday’s 82-68 defeat of Connecticut at Fifth Third Arena, and that word was “pitiful.”
UC had 18 defensive deflections. Cronin wanted 40.
So despite a 14th straight victory, a 22nd consecutive home win and an energized outing before a sold-out crowd of 13,428, the tone of Cronin’s post-game press conference was somber.
“I’d rather win than lose. I thought Kyle (Washington) and Gary (Clark) made a lot of shots. Twenty-two assists. Offensively pretty efficient today but defensively, extremely disappointing,” Cronin said.
He liked with the way UC (21-2, 10-0 American) played defensively in the 10 minutes it pulled away from the beleaguered Huskies (10-12, 5-5). That was it. Cronin said it was the team’s second-worst deflection count all season, eclipsing only the 15 it had in a Dec. 10 loss at then-No. 16 Butler.
“Kyle and Jacob (Evans) combined for one more (deflection) than my mother and she passed away in ’05,” Cronin said.
To a casual fan, the game looked favorable – even fun – for UC, which led by as many as 26 points.
Washington scored a career-high 27 points with a career-best three made 3-pointers, Clark added 20 points and a team-high 11 rebounds, and the Bearcats shot 50 percent throughout. They also shared the ball well, compiling 22 assists on 30 field goals.
To Cronin’s critical eye, though, the outing had nightmarish moments.
“If we get in the NCAA tournament and have a game with 18 deflections, or have a game with Jacob Evans not scoring and he has one deflection, we will lose. Period. We’ll lose," Cronin said. "That’s exactly what I just told those guys.
"They can be happy and everybody can tell them how great they are. UConn’s playing freshmen. They’ve got injuries. They’re trying to fight through it. We made every shot tonight. Obviously Kyle and Gary combined tonight for 19 field goals. We’re supposed to win."
The 42 points UConn scored in the second half were the most UC allowed since Temple put up 46 on Jan. 18. The Huskies’ 68 total points were the most by a UC foe since Xavier scored 78 in last week’s Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout.
But the Huskies never seriously challenged the Bearcats and played from behind from start to finish. UConn made a late push, mounting an 11-0 run with 3:23 left, but could not significantly narrow the gap before time expired.
Cronin said the Bearcats’ defense better shape up by the time the UConn rematch rolls around March 5.
“If we don’t play 40 minutes, we’ll lose at UConn. I can promise you that,” Cronin said. “We made so many shots that that’s what broke their spirit. That’s what broke them.”
What went right?
Washington said he and Clark decided before the game that they needed to be ready to play. Then they followed that script on the offensive end.
“Honestly. I can’t tell you guys how great it feels to be near Gary when we’re about to start the game or have him as my frontcourt mate, because he just gives me so much confidence,” Washington said.
Washington scored UC’s first six points, and 13 of its first 17. He said he was more concerned with his defense because Cronin said that’s how he will become a better player, but his offense made others take notice.
Specifically, UConn coach Kevin Ollie. And mostly he was noticing how his players were not defending well.
“To have him go over his right shoulder over and over again, which the scouting report said make him go the other shoulder, means (UConn players are) not following coaches’ instructions and you’re not playing tough enough. You’ve got to do that to win games against Cincinnati and a lot of teams in the conference. You have to do that, and you have to be tough,” Ollie said.
Washington went 11-for-18 from the field and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line. Clark made eight of his 14 field goal attempts and matched Washington from the stripe.
Jarron Cumberland added 15 points on a day that Evans, UC’s season scoring leader (14.1 ppg), went scoreless for the first time all season. Still, the Bearcats scored above their 77.5 point season average.
It was a big night for Troy Caupain, who needed just two assists to reach 100 for the season. He finished with six, making him the third player in school history to amass 100 or more assists in at least three seasons as a Bearcat.
A better finish
UC players conceded that they needed to finish the last five minutes better, especially when the Huskies buried three straight threes. Rodney Purvis, who scored a team-high 20 points, had two of the triples.
“When that happens it gets really dead throughout the team because you know…you’ve got to finish (the game) and not let things like that happen,” Clark said. “Being an older team with leaders like Troy and Kevin (Johnson), you just can’t allow that.”
The lessons the current Bearcats learned from the 1992 Final Four team, which was honored Saturday, resonated with Clark.
“The ’92 team was just talking about details, as far as you go up five (then) make it 10. You go up 10, make it 15,” Clark said. “Just keep putting your foot on anybody’s throat and just finishing the game.”
The Bearcats host UCF at 9 p.m. Wednesday and close out the week at SMU at 4 p.m. Sunday. Overlooking UCF would be disastrous, but there’s plenty riding on the SMU outing.
The Mustangs enter the UC showdown with a 14-0 record on their home court.
And, at No. 26 in the latest NCAA RPI, the Mustangs are UC’s last chance for a marquee regular season road victory. Should the Bearcats lose in Dallas, the Dec. 1 overtime squeaker at Iowa State (52nd in the RPI) will stand as their best true road win.