UC passes first NCAA tournament test out west

Posted at 11:34 PM, Mar 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-18 01:46:08-04

Playing out west in the NCAA tournament didn't crimp the University of Cincinnati's style after all.

Coach Mick Cronin wasn't keen on the Bearcats' No. 6 seed (too low) or first-round destination in Sacramento (too far) but the team didn't skip a beat in its South Region opener. UC defeated No. 11 seed Kansas State 75-61 in a Friday outing at the Golden 1 Center.

UC also ensured its place in Sunday's second round against No. 3 seed UCLA.

Shortly after the victory, Cronin clarified his post-Selection Show comments. He said he loved the West Coast -- two of his best friends live in Los Angeles -- and his beef was on behalf of the families forced to make the cross-country trip to watch players compete.

"It's such a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our kids," Cronin said.

The Bearcats (30-5) didn't let time or place affect their game. In fact, forward Kyle Washington said there was a prevailing sense of calm that helped UC start strong and stay hot. He attributed that feeling to players who'd been in the NCAA tournament before, as well as the fruits of the season's labors.

"We have a whole bunch of guys who are experienced and ready to play. We were ready," Washington said.

The last two times UC was sent to out west, in 2016 and 2014, it lost its openers. This time the team made sure its stay lasted through the weekend.

A national audience had a chance to see what Bearcats fans knew all along: UC's offense could pack a punch. UC shot a sizzling a 62.8 percent behind Troy Caupain's season-high 23 points, Washington's 16 points and Gary Clark's 15 points.

Caupain, who tied Clark with a team-best seven rebounds, started the game 5-for-5 from the field and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line. He accounted for 14 of the Bearcats' 39 first-half points.

"I thought Troy played his best game of the year," Cronin said. "For a couple years he has carried us offensively. We got him some help this year... (But) he sacrificed a lot."

Every time the Bearcats needed a big play, Caupain made it. The Bearcats also established a low post presence early and controlled the glass.

Kansas State was simply overmatched in the second leg of its extended journey. It traveled to Dayton for a First Four game Tuesday, defeating Wake Forest 95-88 for the right to play UC, and made its way to California soon after.

Bruce Weber's team (21-14) dropped six of its final 10 regular-season games and barely squeaked into the tournament field.

The Bearcats didn't make the Wildcats' NCAA tournament experience any easier. UC made its first eight field goals -- including three by Clark, who got it done from the perimeter to the paint -- and surged ahead 20-11.

The Wildcats were dealt a blow when senior forward and season scoring leader Wesley Iwundu picked up his third foul with 6:56 left in the half. K-State managed to cut into an 11-point lead while the Bearcats slogged through a scoreless stretch, but the Wildcats' extended efforts were denied when UC's offense reappeared.

About the only hitches in the Bearcats' first-half plans were Washington's two fouls. He logged just nine minutes before the break.

The Wildcats tried to engineer a second-half turn-around, but UC had none of it. Washington scored 10 points in the first nine minutes and the Bearcats, led by the blocking prowess of Jacob Evans, held K-State scoreless for 3:35 while expanding their lead to 14.

UC's advantage eventually grew to 17.

"Obviously at this time of year, a one point win is enough. Today we were in control throughout," Cronin said.

Iwundu finished with a team-high 19 points but his team was doomed by 38.9 percent shooting and a UC defense that parlayed turnovers to 12 points.

The Bearcats survived on the same day American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champion SMU lost. As the best team in Cronin's tenure marches on, it gains another chance to show its mettle -- and rewrite history.

One more win and the Bearcats tie the 2001-02 team (31-4) for most victories in a season.