Cincinnati is arguably the biggest positive surprise in all of college basketball with the No. 7 ranking in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 Poll and a multi-game lead in the American Athletic Conference standings.
The Feb. 6 victory over Connecticut at home will only serve to help the Bearcats’ cause as they climb in the rankings and separate themselves from the rest of the pack in the American Athletic Conference.
The Huskies could not overcome a raucous crowd at Fifth Third Arena, falling 63-58, despite an impressive first half.
Connecticut controlled the pace of play early in the game, extending its lead to as many as 10 points and entering intermission with a five-point advantage. For the first 10 minutes of the second half, the Huskies were able to hold off numerous Cincinnati charges and keep that momentum, quieting the crowd in the process.
Then the Bearcats got over the hump.
Sean Kilpatrick, who is one of the most underrated players in the entire country, hit a critical three-pointer with five minutes remaining to give Cincinnati the lead for good. The Bearcats controlled the pace in the second half, outscoring Connecticut by 10 points in the final 20 minutes.
If Cincinnati wants to be taken seriously as a Final Four contender, these are the types of games against the quality teams in its conference that it must win during the regular season.
Forward Justin Jackson said that is exactly where he sees the Bearcats come March, per an ESPN.com preview. "We're not done yet. We want to be on the big stage come March. That's our focus: When we come to March to have a good seed and do what we need to do."
The win was the 15th consecutive victory for the Bearcats and extended their record to 22-2 overall and a perfect 11-0 in conference. Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports summed it up:
So much for Louisville, Connecticut and Memphis dominating the league this season.
Mick Cronin employed a zone in the final minutes, which not only forced the Huskies to shoot contested attempts from the outside, but it also bled the clock after Cincinnati seized the lead. It eliminated the penetration from the Connecticut guards that was so effective in the first half and turned the Huskies into a one-dimensional squad on offense.
The decision was critical because the Bearcats missed some opportunities to salt away the game with less than a minute left on the free-throw line.
The game was billed as a showdown between two contenders for the conference’s Player of the Year honors and two preseason American Conference First Team All-League players, according to the official Twitter page of ESPN College Basketball:
Kilpatrick and Shabazz Napier put on the show that was expected, but Kilpatrick and his team held the distinct advantage by the final buzzer. Napier had a chance to drain a critical three-pointer and give his squad the lead with less than 30 seconds remaining, but it clanked off the front rim.
With the competition between Kilpatrick and Napier in mind, let’s dig into some individual grades for this in-conference showdown.
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: A
Kilpatrick had an opportunity to show a national audience just how talented his is, and the Cincinnati playmaker did just that.
Kilpatrick was posting nightly averages of 19.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals coming into the showdown with Connecticut, but he was even a better overall player against the Huskies than his overall numbers would suggest.
Kilpatrick finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
He also hit one of the most important shots in the game with five minutes remaining to give Cincinnati the lead for good. Throw in a monumental and-one finish heading into the final television timeout to give the Bearcats some separation.
Kilpatrick even hit the two free throws to make it a two-possession game with less than five seconds remaining with MVP chants reigning down on him from the student section.
Kilpatrick was the best player on the court throughout the game, showed how superstar players win games for their teams down the stretch with critical baskets and made a strong case for American Conference Player of the Year.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: C
It was a case of good and bad for Napier against the Bearcats.
On the one hand, he finished with a solid 16 points, but there was far more concerning developments throughout the contest. He shot multiple air balls on deep and challenged threes throughout the game, forced the issue in the second half when Cincinnati made its critical run to take the lead and turned it over on a critical possession in the final minutes when defenders collapsed on his penetration.
Napier had a chance to erase all that with a three-pointer in the final seconds when his team was trailing by two, but it fell short.
The Bearcats’ stifling defense held Connecticut’s star to an abysmal 2-of-12 shooting from behind the three-point line, which was a primary reason why the zone was so effective in the second half.
Justin Jackson, Cincinnati: A–
The only thing Justin Jackson did wrong against Connecticut was get in foul trouble, which is why his grade was docked slightly to an A-.
Jackson was an absolute force on the inside on both ends of the floor, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, six rebounds and two blocks. It was par for the course for the forward, who was posting nightly averages of 11.3 points, seven rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 1.8 steals heading into the game.
If Jackson and Kilpatrick combine to play the way they did against the Huskies the rest of the season, Cincinnati should be the ones holding the American Athletic Conference crown at the end of the season.
Cincinnati still holds the lead in the American standings and will go on the road to take on upstart SMU on Feb. 8. The Mustangs have been a positive surprise as well this season, so the Bearcats cannot afford to overlook Larry Brown’s squad.
As for Connecticut, the road trip continues at Central Florida on Feb. 9. With games against Memphis and Louisville, as well as a rematch against Cincinnati, on the future docket, the Huskies will need to make sure they take care of business against the bottom-dweller Knights.
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