|Cincinnati's win Wednesday night at UConn improved the Bearcats to 5-1 in the Big East. (US PRESSWIRE)|
STORRS, Conn. — Cincinnati flew into Hartford, took the 30-minute bus ride to Storrs and stole the title of Big East’s Second-Best Team from Connecticut Wednesday.
The Bearcats hung on at Gampel Pavilion, 70-67, after Sean Kilpatrick sunk a kill shot on Connecticut with 2.7 to go. I was sitting 10 feet from where it happened. It was awesome, and it positively froze the frenzied Gampel Pavilion crowd just seconds after Shabazz Napier tied the game, completing a 10-point comeback in less than two minutes for the Huskies.
The win offered more answers about who Cincinnati is, its dynamics, how tough it can be and why it’s as stable a group as you could ask for in wake of what will most certainly go down as college basketball’s ugliest moment of the season.
Yeah, that fight, it needs to be mentioned again. You think I want to get into this? Not really, but it’s legitimate subtext to Cincy’s season. Going to be that way the remainder of the way, through March or April. Fair or not, it’s a prologue to every big game they play. That will diminish as the season goes on, but it merits mention in mid-January because, Wednesday night, Cincinnati earned its Marquee Win (it was the first home loss for Connecticut this season) and biggest moment following that fracas against Xavier more than a month ago.
The players don’t much care about their perception; it’s refreshing to see how light-hearted they are about it. Afterward, the press peppered them with questions about really hitting a stride more than a month away from the fight. The players took all the questions, answered them in full and without a stock, trite tone in their voices. Throughout the game, UConn fans taunted the Bearcats, particularly Yancy Gates, who threw the sport’s more infamous sucker punch. Gates didn’t ignore it.
“We laugh when we come in and student sections are still yelling about it,” he said. “Actually, it’s kind of amusing. It happened, we’ve moved on, and become a better team. It could’ve easily gone another way.”
The way it’s going (15-4 and 5-1 in the Big East) is turning into one of college basketball’s most surprising storylines. UConn will still be considered a better team than Cincinnati right now by some, but the record shows the Bearcats are No. 2 in the standings with wins against Georgetown, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and UConn. Think the Huskies can claim better? Florida State, West Virginia Harvard … Notre Dame. And 4-3 in the Big East.
It’s these kind of wins, the wins no one really expects them to get — hello, UConn was considered (still is?) a national title contender — that tussle convention and expectation on its side. The Bearcats needed 11 3s to do alter the national perception of them tonight, but Mick Cronin will take it any way he can get it. Especially tonight's oh-thank-you-God way. The Bearcats don't win normally get these kind of games to end on their side.
The confidence is there, consistently, for this team now, as high as it’s been all season, players said following the finish. Cronin looked as loose as I could ever remember him after he traded in his suit and tie for Cincinnati wind pants and a gray hoodie. He shared a moment, one of his favorites from this season, so far. It didn’t come Wednesday night.
“I saw a change in our team recently,” he said. “There was a comment made in our locker room — because Pitt is still Pitt; I don’t care what anybody says, and the way they’re playing, they’re back to playing well — and I heard one of our players say, ‘We just beat Pitt at Pitt. We must be really good.’” The mental state in this league, when you’re trying to build a program and break down the hierarchy, as coach you don’t know how real all that stuff is. I hear the media talk about it, but anyway, when I heard one of our players say, ‘We’re better than Pitt,’ you can tell it meant a lot to them.”
For Kilpatrick and other Bearcats, the Pitt W was the big one this season; they admitted as much. (Pretty big of Kilpatrick to say that after winning Wednesday's game the way he did.) Cronin said tonight was bigger. Of course it was. When the schedule was released over the summer, Cronin scoped it immediately, but carefully. His eyes looked for the big games, particularly the UConn one, which he knew would be on the road. He was hoping it would be at the XL Center, in Hartford, where the Huskies play many of their home games. Nope. “STORRS, CONN.” it read. And so he knew how big this would be, even before knowing how good his team would become or the PR mess that awaited him a few months down the way in the Cintas Center.
“Coming into adversity like this, at UConn, you need to know how to close it out. We did,” Kilpatrick said.
Most recently, Cincy was the one in need of a chase late to get a win. Not tonight. The Bearcats staved off a rally, led by Napier, who was throwing the ball at the hoop from 23 feet again and again, from the same spot on the far left side of the floor.
There was no buckle for Cincy. It earned a 10-point lead with less than two minutes to go and got a brand of road win that 10 other teams won’t lay claim to this year. This team is better than you want to believe. Time to set your notions of what this team is to the side for now. The Big East, in a down year, has Cincinnati as its second-best team. It may not last for more than a week or two, or maybe this team gets to Manhattan with a 14-4 league record and a complete tonal change on its season.
The group is capable of a lot right now. It remains to go the good way.