It was a hard-fought game with the emotional roller-coaster you expect from Cincinnati sports, but ultimately the Saint Joseph's Hawks topped the Bearcats, 78-76, in a loss that perhaps "heartbreaking" doesn't do justice.
The Bearcats got big performances from Jacob Evans and Coreontae DeBerry, but it's the final play that will sit with Cincinnati in this one, as a game-tying dunk by Octavius Ellis, in the closing seconds, was ruled late, ending the Bearcats season in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
From the opening tip, Cincinnati and Saint Joseph's traded blows, setting the tone for an exciting game. Both teams felt each other out in the early-going with Cincinnati taking an early 13-11 lead. It was actually the sparsely used Quadri Moore who gave the Bearcats a much needed spark in the opening moments, scoring six points before exiting before half due to injury.
The Hawks got hot and made a 16-6 run, led by their star DeAndre Bembry, who scored 20 points in the first half alone. The junior proved to be a challenging matchup for Cincinnati, shooting the ball well from beyond the arc and displaying quickness that was hard to contain for a variety of UC defenders.
Cincinnati stormed back to take a 32-31 lead on an Evans three-pointer at the 3:30 mark and would lead by as many as three approaching half. Bembry and the Hawks rebounded to take the lead in the closing minutes. Cincinnati entered the break trailing Saint Joseph's, 41-40.
While Moore was the early spark for Cincinnati, it was DeBerry who carried the Bearcats to the halftime break. Coming off a strong finish to the regular season, DeBerry played with confidence down-low, out-muscling Saint Joseph's defenders en route to 14 points in the first half, which would have been a career-high if the game had ended there. DeBerry was a perfect 5-of-5 from the field, knocked down all four free throws he attempted and added three blocks in a fantastic half.
The usual suspects of Ellis, Gary Clark and Troy Caupain only had two combined points between the three of them and that lone basket didn't come for Caupain until the closing seconds of the half. Evans and Farad Cobb each stepped up, scoring nine points apiece, to go along with the production from DeBerry and Moore. Cincinnati actually entered the break shooting 15-of-27 (55.6%) from the field, compared to the Hawks 14-of-29 (48.3%).
Meanwhile, Bembry was a monster for Saint Joseph's in the first half, going 7-of-9 from the field and 3-of-3 from deep to score 20 of the Hawks 41 points. He also entered the break with two rebounds, one steal and a block. Isaiah Miles and James Bembry each added seven points for Saint Joseph's.
The second half started much like the first one did, as both teams traded bursts of scoring. DeBerry continued to play a huge role, scoring four of Cincinnati's first nine, but Saint Joseph's found their offensive stride before the Bearcats did, extending their lead to 63-51, by the 11:26 mark, with a 17-2 run.
With Cincinnati desperately needing to stop the bleeding, Evans stepped up, tipping an offensive rebound in for two and then followed that up with a key three-pointer on a Caupain assist. The two baskets keyed a short run for the Bearcats, with Ellis hitting two free throws and Kevin Johnson knocking down a jumper to pull Cincinnati to a 64-60 deficit.
Cincinnati's defense settled in, limited the Hawks and allowed the Bearcats to build upon a 18-5 run, led by the freshman Evans, who scored eight points in back-to-back-to-back possessions, giving Cincinnati a 71-68 lead that seemed far-fetched only minutes prior.
Saint Joseph's responded by rattling off seven straight points, giving them a 75-71 advantage with 2:33 remaining, prompting a timeout from Mick Cronin.
Out of the timeout, the Hawks looked to build upon their lead, but a huge block by Ellis, kept the Hawks from extending their lead and set up a Cobb three-pointer that brought the Hawks lead down to 75-74 with 1:37 left in regulation.
Following a Hawks turnover and a Cincinnati possession that yielded no real results, Saint Joseph's had the ball with under a minute remaining. An Ellis block on a three-point attempt got Caupain the ball, who passed it up to Evans, setting up a fast-break dunk opportunity and giving Cincinnati a 76-75 lead.
Saint Joseph's took a timeout, setting up a three-point play for Miles, who knocked down the clutch three-pointer, giving the Hawks a 78-76 lead with 11 seconds left. Cincinnati got it down the floor, setting up for one of the most heartbreaking losses you could imagine.
With time running out, Ellis went up to dunk the ball. As he threw the ball down, the buzzer sounded. The initial call on the floor was a made shot and overtime, but after reviewing the play it was determined that Ellis still had his hands on the ball when time expired. Game over. Season over.
This is a hard one to swallow, as there is so much to dissect from an incredibly exciting game. DeBerry and Evans were stars. Ellis bounced back from a rough offensive outing to make two huge blocks in the closing minutes, only to have that ripped out from under him on the final play of the game. Not to mention, Cincinnati as a team showed incredible resiliency as the game felt to be slipping from them midway through the second half, but they responded as they have all season, by playing hard and getting back into it.
It's been a rough season for the Bearcats, and their fans, as Cincinnati has now lost six games this season by two points or less. This game felt like an unfortunate, yet accurate summation of the 2015-16 college basketball season.
Evans led the Bearcats with 26 points, followed by DeBerry's 18 (career-high) and Cobb's 12. Evans also had nine rebounds to lead Cincinnati.