It was a nice dream for about an hour, but then Bearcats fans had to wake up.
The Bearcats (30-6, 16-2 American) season ended with a whimper Sunday night with a 79-67 loss to the sharpshooting UCLA Bruins (31-4, 15-3 Pac 12). Cincinnati actually went to halftime with a lead, but the vaunted UCLA offense put any notion of an upset to bed about midway through the second half.
Cincinnati fell behind 8-2 to start the game, but used a 12-0 run to grab a 14-8 lead. Kevin Johnson was the catalyst for the rally, hitting two three-pointers during the run. The Bearcats were able to force the Bruins to play at their pace for the entire half, taking up large chunks of clock with every possession. It was an excellent strategy that kept the Bruins from ever truly getting into rhythm.
Lonzo Ball nailed a three-pointer with 3:10 remaining in the half to give UCLA a 27-26 advantage, but the Bearcats responded with a 7-3 run to take a 33-30 lead into halftime.
It was an uncharacteristic half for both teams. The Bearcats turned the ball over eight times, compared to just one for UCLA, and the Bruins 30 points was their lowest first half total on the season.
The second half was all Bruins though.
After being held to 30 points in 20 minutes, UCLA scored 10 in the first 2:55 to jump out to a quick 40-36 lead. They wouldn’t stop there. Lonzo Ball took control and showed why he’ll be the #1 or #2 overall selection in June’s NBA Draft. Ball knocked down back-to-back three pointers, and then Bryce Alford added one of his own, all in about 62 seconds. The game was essentially over at that point.
From then on, Ball masterfully facilitated the high-powered Bruins offense to wide-open dunks, layups, and three pointers. He’d end the game with 18 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, and just one turnover. In fact, the Bruins ended the game with just three turnovers as a team, an absolutely remarkable number against this Bearcats defense.
The senior-led Bearcats didn’t roll over. They kept the score within seven to ten points for the final stretch, but were never able to make the kind of run they needed to seriously threaten UCLA. Jarron Cumberland hit several clutch buckets, leading the team in scoring with 15 points on 7-13 shooting from the field.
The game marks the end of the careers of Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson. Caupain will go down as one of the best in Cincinnati history, and Johnson will be remembered for his tenacious, shutdown defense and the beautiful jump shot that didn’t drop in quite as much as anyone expected.
By any measure, it was a successful season for the Bearcats. They won 30 games, and showed the future is very bright in Cincinnati. Cumberland and Evans had incredible freshman and sophomore seasons respectively, and Gary Clark and Kyle Washington will be seniors next year. Add in the fact that the Cane Broome era will officially begin next season, and there plenty of reasons to be excited for Bearcats basketball in 2017 and beyond.