Facing a tough road test and playing without Farad Cobb and Shaq Thomas, Cincinnati couldn't overcome Houston, falling to the Cougars, 69-56. This loss hurts as the Bearcats will now fall right back into the thick of the bubble watch with the NCAA Tournament weeks away.
Cincinnati actually started this one quickly, jumping out to a 13-7 lead in the early going. Houston responded in a big way though, pulling back to a 15-15 tie with just under eight minutes remaining in the first half before pouring it on themselves.
Assisted by Bearcats turnovers and poor shooting, the Cougars would score the next nine points unanswered as part of a 18-5 run to close out the first half. Cincinnati entered the break trailing 20-33 on the road.
Shooting doomed the Bearcats in the first half with Cincinnati only finding the back of the net on 7-of-25 (28%) of their field goals, compared to Houston's 12-of-32 (37.5%). Cincinnati was shooting a better percentage from three, connecting on 4-of-9 (44.4%), but it wasn't enough to keep the Cougars within double-digits.
Additionally, Cincinnati played the first half sloppy in possession, turning the ball over eight times compared to Houston's two. It also certainly didn't help that Houston scored six easy points on free throws as the Cougars hit 75% of their free throws in the half, while Cincinnati could only connect on 2-of-6 (33.3%) from the line.
Facing a 13-point deficit, Cincinnati came out of the break desperate, but Houston continued to keep their distance for much of the second half. The Bearcats began to lean heavily on Troy Caupain and Jacob Evans for scoring while Octavius Ellis tormented the Cougars in the paint. The lack of depth, thanks to the Cobb and Thomas injuries, seemed to take away from Cincinnati as they struggled to lock down on defense like they have done for most of the season.
It seemed that Cincinnati possibly found the break they needed with 9:05 remaining in regulation when Houston's Kyle Meyer committed a flagrant-one foul on Ellis with Cincinnati trailing 39-50. Ellis would knock down both free throws, cutting the Houston lead to single-digits.
Still, it only took two minutes of game time for Cincinnati to fall behind by 14 points, trailing 41-55 with 7:47 remaining. The Bearcats would make a 10-5 run to pull within nine points with only 3:40 left in the second half. Despite Cincinnati's best efforts to pull close as the clock ran out, the Bearcats were unable to make the game interesting late. Houston would cruise the rest of the way, winning 69-56.
Caupain led the Bearcats with 19 points as he was asked to carry the load for Cincinnati when momentum shifted in Houston's favor. Evans added 14 points and Ellis nearly secured a double-double with 11 points and nine rebounds. Ellis did foul out with a minute remaining. Gary Clark was relatively quiet in this one, only scoring six points, but he did bring down a game-high 13 rebounds.
This wasn't one of Cincinnati's better efforts as they struggled to lockdown on defense, even in the paint, couldn't protect the ball (turned the ball over 12 times to Houston's five) and struggled to knockdown shots. The Bearcats finished going 17-of-51 (33.3%) from the field and ended up going 8-of-22 (36.4%) from deep. Houston knocked down 40.7% of their field goals against Cincinnati's vaunted defense.
This one hurts the ol' NCAA Tournament Resume, at least in terms of an at-large bid. It doesn't bury the Bearcats, but it puts a lot more pressure on Cincinnati's regular season home finale on Sunday when they host SMU at Fifth Third Arena. It also drops Cincinnati's overall record to 21-9 with their conference record now 11-6.
This is a disappointing loss for a Cincinnati team that really needed to win this game. The Bearcats will need to beat the Mustangs unless they plan on winning the AAC Conference Tournament en route to a tournament run.