Are you having fun yet?!
Three days after a heroic dagger from one senior point guard, Cincinnati got a second from another.
The Bearcats dodged death and completed the first leg of their two-game road trip unscathed, knocking off the UConn Huskies 64-60 in a battle of guts. As we've come to expect, the team with Cincinnati across its chest tends to have a bit more of those.
The Bearcats staked themselves to a 15-point lead in the second half, nearly putting me to sleep with ten minutes of sloppy, boring play that inspired no one but was enough to keep UConn at bay. Just when the game seemed it would be a snoozer, the Huskies came roaring back. On an afternoon where they honored Rip Hamilton and their 1999 National Championship team, the XL Center had a new reason to cheer when UConn snatched a one-point lead with five minutes left.
Bearcat fans found themselves trapped in a replay of Thursday's game against UCF. Jarron Cumberland got held, grabbed, and mugged all afternoon. Once again, UC had to find a way to win without their star's scoring superpower. They turned to Keith Williams, who immediately reclaimed the lead with two buckets at the rim. A Cumberland runner gave the 'Cats a three-point lead before UConn answered right back.
Then it was time for the local kid to take over. Hartford native Cane Broome caught a feed from Williams, rising up for a massive shot to put his team back up four.
The Huskies—ruthlessly pesky but short on talent without guard Jalen Adams—found a way to add three more.
With 30 seconds left and the Bearcats clinging to another one-point lead, Mick Cronin turned to Cumberland to find a bucket. He isolated, drove the lane, but couldn't find the rim. The errant shot fell into the hands of Keith Williams, who returned to the arc but didn't realize the shot clock hadn't reset until the last possible second. He shoveled the rock into the hands of Broome, who used stones of steel and the divine hand of God to beat the shot clock from 28 feet.
From there, all it took was a near five-second violation on a Cincinnati inbound followed by two icy free-throws from Williams—just like he'd done Thursday—to send the Bearcats back to Clifton with their 23rd victory.
The game could've, and probably should've, gone sideways for UC. The officiating, as it tends to do in AAC play, roped Nysier Brooks and Eliel Nsoseme into foul trouble early. With Cumberland tied up and Williams unable to get going, the Bearcats were forced to turn to the end of the rotation. This is a game Cincinnati loses without the early efforts from Mamoudou Diarra, Logan Johnson, and Trevor Moore. Nineteen first-half points from the bench is not a recipe for success on the road, at least not for this year's team, but instead of a halftime deficit, the squad in black found themselves up three points at the break.
A run to start the second half stretched the margin to 15 before it all evaporated and Cincinnati again turned to its secondary pieces, who were able to score 12 of UC’s final 14 points. It's a luxury I didn't expect the Bearcats to have this season, but now it's one I wish they didn't have to deploy—especially in two straight February games.
The scouting report is in on Cumberland. If the officials are cooperating, you can claw him out of the game the way Connecticut did. Cronin will spend the next few days calibrating his adjustment, because eight points, five rebounds, and four assists on the road feels like a recipe more likely to yield heart failure than it does victory.
No matter, Cincinnati is 23-4, winners of eight conference games by single digits. We knew these guys wouldn't cruise through league play as they did a year ago, but their ability to consistently manufacture ways to win close games is a pleasant surprise.
For fans with a healthy heart and a strong stomach, it's been fun to watch.
The Bearcats have won seven games in a row against UConn—unbeaten since the 4OT bonanza in the 2016 AAC Tournament. Cincinnati hasn't lost a regular season game to the Huskies since January 2015 and hasn't lost in Clifton since 2011. UConn is four games under .500 in regular season AAC play since winning the national championship in 2014. It puts them 10.5 games behind Tulsa in that same span, for reference. Head coach Dan Hurley is a lunatic, and his team has given Cincinnati two frustrating games this season, despite currently sitting under .500. The Huskies will probably be back sooner than later.
Justin Jenifer is a bonafide scoring option now, and it's delightful. He finished with 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting and knocked down threes to open Cincinnati's scoring in each half. The senior is putting an elegant bow on his career, which isn't a surprise for those familiar with his work ethic.
I'm happy for Cane Broome. I'm sure he didn't transfer from Sacred Heart with the intention of being a two-year bench player for the Bearcats, but he's helping his team win. His heroics in Tulsa saved the ‘Cats once, and his miracle in Hartford probably saved them again. His pair of monster shots in his hometown will be something for him to remember fondly. After an uneven start to his senior campaign, he's starting to bring a spark with him to every game. In his last four outings, Broome is averaging 10.3 points. In his last six, he's 9-for-18 from outside. He's back.
It was another tough game for the starting bigs. Nysier Brooks and Trevon Scott scooped up 13 rebounds but combined for just nine points. Brooks fouled out on an overaggressive play, and Scott committed three turnovers. I've repeated again and again that the Bearcats don't need much scoring from those two, but their presence on the floor—especially at the defensive end—changes how Cincinnati plays. You could chalk this one up to officiating hijinx, but the point remains: Brooks and Scott need to battle to stay on the court. Most opponents on the rest of the schedule won't be as forgiving as UConn was.
Cincinnati is quietly mowing teams down from the stripe. Their 15-for-16 mark Sunday was a huge factor in the win, and they're a stunning 48-for-56 in their last three games.
The Bearcats will be back into the Top 25 of the AP Poll tomorrow. Neat!
Cincinnati's final game of February goes down Wednesday night at 9 p.m. at Moody Coliseum. The Ponies just got smacked into next week by UCF, but I've watched too many games in Dallas to feel comfortable about this one. Bring on the fun.