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Bearcats defeat Connecticut to advance to AAC Championship Game

Cincinnati made 38 of 46 free throws in victory

NCAA Basketball: AAC Conference Tournament-Connecticut vs Cincinnati David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

That may have been good television, but it was terrible basketball.

Cincinnati (29-4, 16-2 American) and Connecticut (16-17, 9-9 American) were whistled for 56 fouls in 40 minutes, and the Bearcats emerged victorious thanks to making an impressive 38 of 46 (82.6%) free throws. Gary Clark led the way with 25 points and nine rebounds, and hit 15 of his 16 free throw attempts to set the pace for Cincinnati. He even lost a tooth in the process.

This game had the feel of a heavyweight match from the beginning. Connecticut is as tough of an out as there is in college basketball, and Kevin Ollie’s team, playing in front of their home crowd, weren’t going to go away quietly.

Cincinnati opened the game knocking down three-pointers. Troy Caupain and Jacob Evans combined for four made three-pointers in the first five minutes, helping the Bearcats jump out to a 15-9 lead. Evans even hit one from NBA range.

Connecticut kept the game relatively close until Jalen Adams picked up his third foul at the 7:39 mark of the first half. The Bearcats led 21-19 at that point, but then went on a 14-2 run over the next four minutes to finally create some separation with a 35-21 lead. Cincinnati would go to halftime ahead 41-29 with all of the momentum in their favor.

Connecticut started the second half with a purpose. After falling behind by 14 points, they used a 15-3 run, punctuated by a Jalen Adams three-pointer to cut the lead to 48-46. They even had the ball, with a chance to take the lead, but Adams missed his next shot and the Bearcats regained momentum.

Unable to regain the shooting touch they enjoyed in the first half, Cincinnati decided to start giving the ball to Gary Clark on nearly every trip down the floor. Yet again, Gary Clark was the problem, and nobody had the answer. Clark scored nine of the Bearcats next 11 points and helped Cincinnati extend the lead back up to eight points.

In the midst of all this was a master class of how not to officiate a basketball game. Perhaps the most egregious call was this foul on Quadri Moore, who apparently committed the cardinal sin of turning around.

It says something about how badly this game was officiated, that even the team that shot 46 free throws has plenty of room to complain. Including this elbow to the head of Troy Caupain that was missed by the officials.

The Huskies still weren’t finished though.

Connecticut continued to battle all the way to the finish. They even cut the lead from 10 points down to five from the 1:06 to 0:46 mark of the game by connecting on three straight three-point plays. Cincinnati would finally put them away for good thanks to a big rebound from Jacob Evans after a Jalen Adams missed layup.

The game could’ve gone several different ways if the Bearcats didn’t knock down their free throws. Time after time, Troy Caupain, Gary Clark, Jacob Evans, and Jarron Cumberland went to the line and hit clutch free throws. It was a stunning reversal of a trend that’s dogged them all season long. A team ranked 282nd in the nation in FT% according to KenPom, knocked down 82.6% of their shots. The 38 made free throws were third most in team history.

This game will always be remembered for Gary Clark losing his tooth, and the terrible officiating. The constant foul calls created a choppy flow to the game that kept all of the shooters from hitting any sort of rhythm. The Connecticut fans were chanting “refs you suck”, while Cincinnati fans on Twitter were calling it the worst officiated game they’ve ever seen.

It’s easy to lose track of exactly how well Troy Caupain played in this game. The senior scored 18 points and added four rebounds with five assists, while turning the ball over only one time in 38 minutes. He consistently found open shooters, and created foul situations for Gary Clark. Here’s a modest example of Caupain being Caupain; he’s continuing to work throughout the possession to find an open Cumberland on other side of the court.

Plays like that make all the difference during close games in hostile environments.

Next up for the Bearcats is an AAC Championship game featuring the two best teams in the conference. Cincinnati will take on SMU at 3:15 pm EST on Sunday, with the winner being anointed the AAC champion, and receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The two teams split their regular season season, with both teams winning on their own home courts. SMU hasn’t lost a game since the Bearcats beat them back on January 12th. Look for a competitive, entertaining finale to the AAC season — as long as the officials from tonight’s game aren’t anywhere near the arena.