The Bearcats won back-to-back overtime games for the first time since the 1966-67 season. It’s a deceiving stat. An overtime victory typically implies guts and grit, and I guess it would be unfair to say the Bearcats didn’t have it against Tulsa and UConn. However, I’d contend what we’ve seen from this team in its last two games is more akin to playing with a live grenade and being fortunate enough to escape with your life.
Just two days after Cincinnati waited until the last possible moment to rally in Tulsa, they refused to close the door on a rebuilding, yet spunky UConn team at home. They built an 11-point lead and yet still needed overtime and a fortuitous call to escape with a victory in their own building.
In the last 14:47 (including overtime), UC managed just three field goals. Two were Nysier Brooks dunks and the third was a massive Justin Jenifer three-pointer that can probably get credit as the game’s pivotal shot. How do you win a game while getting your only crucial field goals from a non-shooting big and a non-scoring guard? Hit every free throw.
Jarron Cumberland missed his first attempt from the charity stripe before proceeding to convert the next 11 consecutive—all coming in the game’s final 12:01 (including overtime). Cincinnati as a team shot 38 times from the line on a mix of lucky calls (from my vantage point at least) and undisciplined, overaggressive UConn defense.
The game’s deciding play came after Jenifer missed a pair of free throws at the end of overtime, giving UConn an opportunity to tie—or win, which felt more likely. Instead, it was Christian Vital who was (somehow) called for a charge.
A win is a win, but—a game removed from the Tulsa debacle—it’s hard to feel much worse about a victory. I do give the team credit for finding a way to hang on, but this was as ugly as it gets.
The questions I wrote about Thursday night only loom larger. Cincinnati’s three-point defense “improved” with a 40.7% mark from UConn, which used three straight outside shots to erase UC’s largest lead. The cat is out of the bag: Cincinnati can’t guard the three point line. If they don’t figure it out, it will cost them a trip to the tournament for the first time since 2010.
Mick Cronin reportedly ripped into the team and coaching staff following the victory. I say “reportedly” because I can’t bring myself to watch it. The talk is great, and I trust Mick knows what he’s doing, but it’s time for results. Bob Huggins had a quote about the common trope of needing a loss to learn: “I tell our guys, you have to be pretty dumb to have to learn that way. Why can’t you win and learn?”
I’m asking the same question today. If there were ever two victories that could serve as season-altering wakeup calls, the Bearcats just played them. I’m grateful it’s only January. We’ve seen what this team can do when it’s clicking, but there is still plenty of room to learn.
UConn is back, or at least on their way. Their season reminds me a lot of the 2017 Bearcats football team. Any time you get rid of a failed coaching staff, the new coach’s biggest task is eradicating bad habits and instilling the proper mindset. Dan Hurley is on his way. Some of the bad habits remain, but the team Cincinnati saw last night is far tougher than the lame duck UConn teams we’ve seen for the past two seasons. I expect them to be good sooner than later. (Additionally, Hurley is a maniac who will be very easy to hate. Good for UConn.)
I can’t fathom what practice will look like for the next two days. Cincinnati played poorly on defense, couldn’t buy a shot on offense, and got out-rebounded in their own gym. Mick Cronin loathes these kinds of performances. The rebounding issue was glaring Saturday, and further adds to the “How on earth did we win that?” nature of the night.
The crowd was lethargic. I don’t have a good explanation other than the general ugly nature of the game. For much of regulation, there was not much consistent pace and any time the fans got into it UConn would make a shot or there would be a stoppage. At one point Mick actually waved his arms to get the crowd noise up. I can’t remember the last time I saw that. I never thought I’d see the day where UConn is in Clifton, tied with four minutes left, and there is not deafening noise. That being said, maybe this is all in my head. Cronin credited the crowd after the game for giving his team an edge. I didn’t feel much of it.
Saturday’s victory gave the Bearcats the lead in the UConn series, 14-13. Imagine telling that to a fan in 2011. If it weren’t for the 4OT debacle in 2016 that required a 75-foot Jalen Adams shot, Cincinnati would have a nine-game winning streak against the Huskies, which is stunning. UConn’s last victory in “normal” fashion came in the 2015 AAC Tournament, which saw Ryan Boatright hit a last-second shot. That feels like a decade ago.
The tests will keep coming. USF comes to town Tuesday and they’re no slouch this year. They’re 12-4 and beat this very UConn team 11 days ago. They’re bringing a nearly top-50 defense to town and an offense that ranks 17th nationally in rebounding. Cincinnati has to be sharper than they were Saturday.