In a hard-fought, physical contest, Cincinnati came out with the 61-54 win, despite shooting poorly throughout the game. It was a scrappy game for the Bearcats, but ultimately the defense was the difference-maker as Cincinnati earned their 22nd win of the regular season against a talented SMU squad. The win could easily be the difference for Cincinnati, who entered the day on the bubble, following a loss to Houston on Thursday.
Early in the game, Cincinnati was fueled by the home Fifth Third Arena crowd, who was engaged and loud throughout. As for the Bearcats on the floor, Coreontae DeBerry was the early star, dunking down the first shot attempt of the game with authority. SMU would respond with a brief run, taking an early 11-6 lead, but it was DeBerry who helped slow down the Mustangs, drawing fouls and knocking down free throws. He made two in a row to bring the score to 11-8 with just over 11 minutes until the break and then did it again a minute later, responding to a SMU basket.
The senior had one of his best games of the season, finishing the game with 10 points with eight coming in the first half. He was perfect from the field and from the line while adding seven rebounds. Foul trouble limited his playing time late, but in a game with such poor shooting between both teams, his efficiency was incredibly valuable.
Cincinnati entered the half with a 34-27 lead, following a flurry of scoring from the Bearcats in the closing minutes of the first half. The Bearcats opened the second half playing with the same intensity from the first, still harassing SMU. However, senior guard Nic Moore played well for the Mustangs, particularly in SMU's attempts to pull close in the second half, scoring six points in the opening minutes. Moore would finish the game with 14 points and five assists for the Mustangs.
Cincinnati would extend their lead in the second half to as many as 11 with just over eight minutes remaining. SMU did claw back to a 55-52 score with two minutes remaining in the game, but to Cincinnati's credit, the Bearcats closed out the game, making their free throws. Cincinnati would go on to win 61-54.
The game was defined by hard-nosed defense and poor shooting for both teams. Cincinnati was a paltry 18-of-61 (29.5%) from the field and only hit 1-of-19 three-point attempts. The Bearcats did knock down 24-of-30 (80%) of their free throws, which was ultimately the difference in this one. Cincinnati also terrorized SMU when the Mustangs had the ball, forcing 17 turnovers. The Bearcats had nine steals and seven blocks.
While DeBerry played very well in this one, Troy Caupain was the leading scorer for Cincinnati with 14 points. He also had five assists and five rebounds. Octavius Ellis had eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Gary Clark struggled to find the back of the net, but did finish with seven points on free throws and stuffed the stat-line with three assists, three steals and one block while dealing with foul trouble of his own.
This game figures to play a big role in Cincinnati's NCAA Tournament hopes. We won't know how they stack up until Selection Sunday, but the Bearcats won a game they needed to win over the Mustangs.
Cincinnati is back in action on Friday when they play UConn for the third time this season in their first game of the AAC Conference Tournament.