The No. 15 Cincinnati Bearcats (25-5, 14-3 AAC) defeated the No. 20 Memphis Tigers (22-8, 11-6 AAC), 97-84, on senior night Thursday.
It was a fitting end for the home careers of Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. The three seniors have had their fair share of ups and downs at Cincinnati, and they weren't about to let the Tigers come in and spoil their night. They sparked the second-half run that saw the Bearcats take a double-digit lead and not look back.
Kilpatrick was clearly playing with a lot of emotion. Both he and Jackson were in tears during the senior night ceremony before the game, per Joe Reedy of Fox Sports Ohio:
Justin Jackson and Sean Kilpatrick crying during #UC Senior Night ceremonies. Cronin biting his lower lip to hold back tears— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) March 6, 2014
Although all three players deserve a lot of credit for the win—they combined for 71 of their team's 97 points—the spotlight shined brightest on Kilpatrick. He left the game to a standing ovation late in the second half, and his 34 points were only two shy of his career high, per L. Jason Smith of The Commercial Appeal:
Kilpatrick finishes with a season-high 34 points on Senior Night. Career high is 36. Crowd chanting MVP. Now booing that Memphis fouled.— L. Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith) March 7, 2014
ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman thought it was a pleasure to have watched Kilpatrick steadily improve during his time in college:
Really cool to see how far Sean Kilpatrick has come. Decision to redshirt as a frosh really paid off. Has had an All-American type season.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 7, 2014
Before the game, UC head coach Mick Cronin marveled at Kilpatrick's development over the years, per Bill Koch of Cincinnati.com.
"You’re talking about a guy who had to redshirt because every time he dribbled the ball with his left hand he lost it for two years," he told Koch. "And now at the end of the game he’s running pick and rolls like a point guard creating wide open shots—going left."
You could sense early that the game was Cincinnati's to lose.
The Bearcats defense was swarming Memphis ball-handlers in the first half, forcing 10 turnovers, and preventing the Tigers from getting good looks at the basket. The fact that Cincinnati was only up 38-32 going into halftime was surprising, as it was clearly the more dominant team in the first 20 minutes.
USA Today's Dan Wolken put it best:
Pretty mind-boggling that Cincy is only up 6 after that stink bomb of turnovers and wild outside shots by Memphis in the first half.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 7, 2014
Were it not for Austin Nichols, Memphis would likely have been down much more, per College Basketball Talk's Rob Dauster:
Austin Nichols has been tremendous in this first half. He's the only reason Memphis is still close.— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) March 7, 2014
At the half, the freshman forward had 10 points and a block.
Memphis got out to a quick start in the second half, closing the gap to 40-39 with 18:12 to go, following a layup by Nichols, per Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated:
Memphis frosh F Austin Nichols has been playing big boy basketball the last few weeks. Tigers within 1 at Cincy early second half.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 7, 2014
Then the Bearcats awoke from their slumber.
They went on an 18-6 run over the next six minutes to grab a huge lead and take control of the game. During that pivotal run, Cincinnati's three star seniors accounted for 14 of the team's 18 points.
From there on out, Cincinnati had all of the momentum, and Memphis was swimming against what was a red and black tidal wave.
Memphis would get to within eight points, 82-74, with a little under two minutes to go, but the Tigers couldn't get the defensive stops necessary to close the gap to a reasonable amount.
Nichols finished with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting in the losing effort, while Joe Jackson led the Tigers in scoring with 21 points.
With the win, the Bearcats still have a shot at winning the American Athletic Conference regular-season title outright. They need Louisville to lose to Connecticut on Saturday in order for that to be possible.
Perhaps more importantly, beating the Tigers will no doubt strengthen Cincinnati's seeding in the NCAA tournament. The selection committee can't overlook how much the Bearcats dominated this game almost from start to finish.
Key Player Grades
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: A+
This is a game Sean Kilpatrick can remember forever. With so many one-and-dones in college basketball, fans are robbed of seeing moments like Thursday night. There was something special about seeing how much senior night meant to Kilpatrick before the game. It's the kind of relationship between a player, coach and school you're seeing less and less these days.
Then Kilpatrick went out and had one of the best games of his collegiate career. It doesn't get much better than that.
Titus Rubles, Cincinnati: A
Titus Rubles entered Thursday's game averaging 7.0 points per game. He made the most of his last home game, as the senior forward had 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Just as important was the fact that he was 6-of-6 from the free-throw line. Memphis was reduced to fouling late to try to get back into the game, and with Rubles knocking down his free throws, the door closed on the Tigers' comeback.
Joe Jackson, Memphis: B-
If you just look at the box score, Joe Jackson didn't have a terrible game. He had 21 points on 5-of-10 shooting. Of course, 10 of those 21 points came from the charity stripe, and Jackson simply looked off on the night:
Bad time of year for Joe Jackson’s jump shot to absolutely go into the tank.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 7, 2014
The Tigers needed their star player to step up and counter the performances of Kilpatrick, Rubles and Justin Jackson. Joe Jackson was merely good when he needed to be outstanding.
The Bearcats finish up the regular season on Saturday on the road against Rutgers. Memphis heads back home for a huge matchup with the No. 18 SMU Mustangs on Saturday.