They did it.
Your Cincinnati Bearcats are your outright AAC Regular Season Champions after going on the road and knocking off the Wichita State Shockers for their best win (by AP Poll standards) since Florida State in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
In this year's Shootout, I knew a bloodbath was coming. Going into Sunday's game, I knew they'd pull it out. I just had a gut feeling.
The Bearcats had a simple, albeit difficult, task in front of them if they wanted the title and it felt like the day we we going to finally see the manifestation of this team. On paper, these guys are really good but we hadn't seen that play out on the floor yet, at least not against a good team. We saw it Sunday. Here's what happened:
What a win. Okay, obviously. But this was seriously a 'program' win--the kind of thing you can look back on a few years later and say, "Damn, that was a big one." The Bearcats were hanging on the brink going into Sunday. Unlike many others, I didn't think a loss would be a killer outside of being a missed opportunity, but the opportunity was huge. I truly believe this is one of the country's most talented teams and they nearly went the entire regular season without a signature win. They stole one on the final day of the regular season. WOW, that was important.
Jacob Evans was heroic. I've been preaching 'Big Game Jake' since his freshman year. In what may be his final regular season game as a Bearcat, we saw it come full circle in the biggest way possible. Jake reeled off 19 points and seven rebounds to go with a couple steals and a block. The Bearcats needed something close to perfection Sunday, but they also needed somebody to lead the way. Jacob Evans was their man. At one point, he tweaked his right knee. Already on shaky ground with his left ankle injury sustained vs Tulane, it seemed ominous. Mick Cronin, for some reason, refused to pull the clearly-hobbled Evans out of the game, the ball ended up in Jake's hands, and he knocked down a three pointer. If Evans does go pro this summer, that play will be the one we remember.
Jarron Cumberland dazzled. I'll stop saying this, because I feel like I'm bringing it up on every blog and podcast, but Cumberland is totally flying under the radar and has been a huge reason for UC's success in the past few weeks. Given the situation, this may have been the best game of his career. He had "only" 11 points and three rebounds, but also hit several of the game's biggest shots including a hesitation that opened up room for an up-and-under in traffic. It's probably the most singularly impressive play I can remember seeing by a Bearcat, especially given the opponent and situation. (Also, Jarron was big on the defensive end. Let's not forget it was he who walled off the rebounder on the final play of the game, preventing a buzzer beater put-back.)
Kyle Washington was better than people think. Did he have his best game? No. But I'd still say he was a positive impact. He had 11 points, seven rebounds, and a block. He shot 4-for-15 from the field, which isn't good. However, what were the alternatives? UC needed something down low and Wichita's bigs had set up shop inside Gary's jersey. Kyle's goofy hook shot was the only thing UC had in the post. Even if the effeciency was nowhere to be found for Kyle, he still hit shots when they mattered the most. His lone three-pointer game in the midst of a Wichita run, dampening the crowd a little bit and keeping the Shockers within arm's reach when the game could've gotten away from UC. Nobody will talk about that shot, but it was huge. His biggest shot of the game, however, came in the final six minutes as both teams were trading the lead. Kyle put UC ahead on a circus shot with 5:45 left. They never trailed again.
The Problem got his signature moment. In my Gary Clark story, I wrote about how he'll go down as one of UC's greats despite not exactly having a signature moment. He's had big, memorable plays, but nothing that instantly pops into your head when you hear his name. We may have seen it in the final seconds on Sunday. With the #11 team in the country down one point with seconds remaining, they turned to arguably the most talented player in the conference to get their bucket. Gary came soaring in from the rafters to spike the ball. It was Wichita's best chance to score and Gary devoured it. That play will be one to remember when Shamet is in the NBA.
How about Nysier Brooks? NBA fans surely remember Kevin Love tying up Steph Curry in the final minute of the 2016 NBA Finals. This reminded me of that. When Jacob Evans missed a potentially game-clinching shot on the offensive end, Cronin quickly subbed in his defensive unit. A lot of teams would be able to hide the slow, 6'10" Brooks closer to the basket and have him wait for penetration. However, the Bearcats are an elite defense because they switch everything. Wichita head coach Gregg Marshall isn't stupid, and logically used this to his advantage, getting the ball into three-point specialist Conner Frankamp's hands and forcing a switch onto Brooks. Against all odds, Brooks held his own, didn't foul, and did enough to force a near airball, all but sealing the win. Incredibly huge play.
Cane Broome was in his element, and his impact extended beyond the box score. His six points won't jump out as a big performance, but all six came in pivotal moments when UC was desperately needing a basket. The kid is cool as ice, and never feels afraid of the moment. He's going to be one of the guys I want on the floor in crunch time.
Did you notice how calm and collected everyone was? I think by now we all know what it's like when the Bearcats are a little shook, playing quickly and out of control in a moment that has overwhelmed them. On Sunday, however, I didn't notice anyone rattled. I was at home on the brink of a coronary rupture and everyone on the court looked prepared and focused. Even Mick Cronin was calm, by his standards.
The turnovers were masterful. The Bearcats committed just three, and one was on a shot clock violation. That was incredible and played a huge role in the win.
What an incredible game. This was an instant classic. The number of plays I'll be able to recall from this game years from now is staggering. Look at how many I mentioned above. College basketball is the best.
The Bearcats wrapped up another 27-win regular season on Sunday and will face the winner of UConn-SMU on Friday to open the conference tournament. The 'Cats are in better position than they've been in 16 years. Just keep winning.