In a different world, this game could’ve been a classic. In an alternate reality where Connecticut didn’t lose Alterique Gilbert, Mamadou Diarra, and Terry Larrier to season-ending injuries in November, and then lose Vance Jackson for concussion symptoms this week, this game might have been for the AAC title.
When the schedule was first released, this was the game everyone circled on their calendar. A head-to-head battle on senior night, in Storrs, the big rematch of the four-overtime AAC tournament thriller, and the two teams picked to win the conference in the preseason.
Instead, this one was essentially over halfway through the first half of the game. Cincinnati (27-4, 16-2 American) defeated Connecticut (14-16, 9-9 American) 67-47, sweeping the season series 2-0. Gary Clark continued his dominance over the Huskies by putting up 17 points and 14 rebounds. Clark had a double-double at halftime.
Cincinnati jumped out to an early 21-7 lead thanks to Clark and freshman, Jarron Cumberland. Cumberland scored six early points as his size and speed proved to be too much for the Connecticut defense.
Cumberland finished the game with 15 points on 6-9 shooting. He’s seen perhaps the most significant improvement throughout the season. Over his last 11 games, Cumberland is averaging 10.7 points per game, compared to just 6.1 points per game in his first 19 games of the season.
Connecticut rallied back to cut the lead to 26-20, but three-pointers from Jacob Evans and Troy Caupain helped the Bearcats extend the lead to 33-23 at halftime.
Cincinnati held a 30-21 rebounding advantage at halftime, partially due to outworking the Huskies on the board, but also because both teams missed a lot of shots. The two teams combined to shoot 21-70 (30%), but that rebounding advantage gave the Bearcats 40 shots compared to just 30 for Connecticut.
The second half wouldn’t be much different. Cincinnati opened with a 26-13 run that pushed the lead as high as 23 points. Kyle Washington played with foul trouble for most of the game, but he scored all seven of his points in the second half and helped to re-establish the inside presence Clark had exploited in the first half. Amida Brimah used his size to alter and block shots, but the skill of the Cincinnati frontcourt has proven just too much for him both games this season.
The game put a nice bow on one of the Bearcats best regular seasons in school history. Their 27-4 record gives them the #2 seed in next week’s AAC Tournament, and ensures a first round bye. They didn’t lose a home game all season, and only lost to four teams, all ranked in the top 51 of KenPom’s defensive rankings.
This is undoubtedly the best team in Mick Cronin’s tenure at Cincinnati. He’s put together a team that can score in bunches, and can defend any team in the country. If things break right, they could win the AAC tournament and grab as high as a three seed in the NCAA tournament. If things break wrong, they’ll lose on Friday and get stuck as a five seed out west.
Let’s hope around this time next Sunday we’re all getting ready for round three of SMU-Cincinnati.