The Bearcats saved their best for March.
Cincinnati (30-5, 16-2 American) played their most complete game of the season against a quality opponent, defeating Kansas State (21-14, 8-10 American) 75-61 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was Cincinnati’s first NCAA Tournament victory since they beat Purdue in the first round in 2015.
The Bearcats came out sizzling hot from the very start, hitting their first eight shots from the field to build an early 20-11 lead. The run was highlighted by several slick interior passes that set up easy dunks.
The Bearcats would stretch the lead to 27-14 when Troy Caupain was fouled on a drive to the basket with 7:39 remaining in the half. Caupain put the team on his back for the rest half, scoring 14 points with three rebounds and two assists.
The hot shooting simply never stopped. Cincinnati hit 15-23 (65.2%) shots in the first half, and out-rebounded Kansas State 14-11. The Bearcats played smothering defense, contesting every shot. The undisputed highlight of the half was this chase-down block by Jacob Evans.
Cincinnati held a 39-28 advantage at the half, one of the few times this year that they went to halftime with a lead that reflected their effort.
Jacob Evans added another monster block in the second half. He scored just nine points in the game, but filled up the box score with four rebounds, five assists, three steals, and three blocks.
Cincinnati came out of halftime hell-bent on getting Kyle Washington involved in the game offensively. Washington responded by scoring six points in the first three minutes to extend the lead back to 13 points.
Kansas State finally responded thanks to two quick three-pointers by Wesley Iwundu. Even though he was mired in foul trouble throughout the game, Iwundu was the lone offensive bright spot for the Wildcats. He scored 19 points, and added four rebounds, and three assists in the losing effort.
Barry Brown’s three-pointer with 14:18 left cut the lead down to six points at 49-43. Cincinnati responded with a 10-2 run that effectively put the game away for the Bearcats. Kansas State stayed within striking distance throughout, but were never quite able to get past a 10-point deficit. In retrospect, this three-pointer from Jarron Cumberland was probably the nail in proverbial coffin.
That shot extended the lead to 67-50, and Bearcats fans promptly began googling highlight videos of Lonzo Ball in advance of Sunday’s second round game.
One reason for Cincinnati’s success tonight was a surprise shift in their offensive game plan. The Bearcats emphasized feeding the ball inside to Kyle Washington and Gary Clark throughout the game, resulting in a season-low of just 11 three-point attempts on the night.
Clark and Washington combined for 31 points on 11-16 shooting. The Wildcats just didn’t have any real answer defensively for their array of post moves and slick interior passes.
After experiencing one crushing defeat after another last season, including their loss to Saint Joseph’s in the NCAA tournament, the Cincinnati program needed this win. It needed it for the seniors who have helped it go to the NCAA tournament every season they’ve been there, and they needed it for a fan base that’s been beaten down over and over again, not just by crushing losses from the Bearcats, but all Cincinnati area sports teams.
Now everyone can spend the next two days reveling in a convincing victory, and preparing mean tweets for Lonzo Ball’s father.
Bring on the Bruins.