CINCINNATI -- There comes a time in a basketball season when senior players are the difference, and for the University of Cincinnati, that time is now.
Kevin Johnson and Troy Caupain combined for 30 second-half points to lift the No. 20 Bearcats to an 81-74 victory over Temple in Wednesday’s American Athletic Conference outing at Fifth Third Arena.
Caupain finished with a team-high 18 points and nine rebounds with seven assists while Johnson chipped in 16 points behind three 3-pointers, and the Bearcats (16-2, 6-0 AAC) defeated Temple (10-10, 1-6) for the second time in three weeks. UC also won its ninth straight game and 19th in a row at home.
"The deeper you get into a season, I think the seniors become more important, and both of our guys just said, ‘We’re not losing tonight,'" UC coach Mick Cronin said. “Kevin and Troy, (I) give them a lot of credit for what went on."
The Bearcats played one of their most masterful second halves of the season after a fairly abysmal first half. Temple coughed up the ball nine times and had fewer field goal attempts, but Fran Dunphy’s team maximized its opportunities and shot 61.1 percent before the break.
Shizz Alston Jr., who finished with a career-high-tying 25 points, swiped the ball from Kyle Washington with 27 seconds left, and Quinton Rose converted a fast-break lay-up that ensured a 7-0 Temple run and 28-26 halftime edge.
UC roared back. The team shot an eyebrow-raising 73.9 percent after the break, heavily eclipsing their 33.3 percent first-half showing, and made 10 straight field goals in one stretch.
"We just had to come together. It was a rough halftime speech. We just knew that in order to do what we wanted to do – ‘Go on a mission,’ as Coach said – we just had to figure it out," Johnson said.
Johnson’s 3-pointer with 7:19 remaining came in the midst of a 10-0 run that put away the game.
So what changed?
The difference in the second half, Johnson said, was execution. Reading Temple’s defense better. Relaxing.
Washington joked that he was scared of Cronin’s calm demeanor in the halftime locker room and then said the coach delivered an effective message.
"Honestly, before we started the second half, (Cronin) just told us that we’re a veteran team and we're going to be in situations like this," Washington said.
Schematically speaking, UC employed more pick-and-roll and post-ups and less motion offense. Cronin's adjustments were designed to deny Temple in several game-within-a-game scenarios.
The Bearcats also weathered Temple’s barrage of nine made 3-pointers after the break. The Owls made 12 triples in all, tying a season high.
Cronin said the Bearcats have had to win in different ways to extend their winning streak. That resilience has kept them in the victory column since Dec. 13.
“Last game we held a team to (46) points. Tonight we scored 81 against a great defensive team,” Cronin said.
Despite praise Cronin heaped on Temple, a home loss to the Owls would have left a mark on the Bearcats’ resume. Temple entered the game ranked 72nd in the NCAA’s RPI. The Bearcats approached the game from their No. 16 perch.
Needless to say, UC can ill-afford to lose its next game at No. 267 Tulane.
Regardless of what’s ahead, players were heartened by the way they united in the second half. They had 12 assists on 17 made field goals and made 18 of 22 free throws.
"We’re sort of really starting to roll together," said Washington, who called UC an 'unselfish bunch.' "I’m really proud of these guys because we’re trying to take this thing to (the Final Four in) Phoenix."
Keep on keeping on
Back to Tulane, a team blown out by UC on Jan. 1. As the Green Wave slogged through 27.4 percent shooting, the Bearcats cruised to a 92-56 victory via a 56.9 percent clip.
Although UC led by as many as 39 points, Cronin said Tulane (4-13, 1-4) played hard.
"We made every shot and they missed every shot, and they missed three dunks. I don’t look at the result as much as I watch the game of what actually went on. They had SMU tied at halftime the other day," Cronin said.
There’s a general rule among coaches that no game is more important than the next, so discussion of UC’s next home opponent -- No. 22 Xavier -- waits until after Tulane, but the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout, a game Xavier has won three times straight, is obviously a huge outing for both teams.
Because there are no major breaks in UC’s schedule right now, Cronin’s main concern is keeping players in top condition. By the week’s end, they will have had three days off.
"Just trying to do everything I can to keep them mentally and physically fresh," Cronin said.
The way UC is playing, and with struggling Tulane ahead, it’s likely that the Bearcats will roll into the Shootout on a 10-game winning streak. Then, things really will become interesting.