It takes a lot to come back from down 18 points against a top 40 KenPom team, but that’s just what the No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats did last night against Houston. If you changed the channel or went home when UC was reeling in the first half, I wouldn’t have blamed you. But, if you did, you missed something special.
First, the history of the moment. Under Mick Cronin, no Bearcat team has ever come back from down so many points. It was also the largest comeback for the program since 2007 when UC overcame West Virginia and a 17-point hole. If this is something that won’t happen but once every 11 years, then we’ll see you in 2029 for another thrilling affair.
In the meantime, let’s dive into just how the Bearcats were able to pull off this caper. It certainly didn’t appear like they would at first, especially because they just couldn’t hold onto the ball. They piled up eight turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the game. They addressed this issue marvelously, as there was just one UC turnover the rest of the way. That helped to mitigate the 14-8 edge the Cougars had in points off turnovers, since most of those points came pre-comeback.
Another area that Houston dominated at first but eventually lost was the glass. Early on, the Cougars’ big men were flexing a bit in the paint and keeping a normally strong rebounding UC team in check. But the rebuttal the Bearcats put up on the scoreboard was matched by an increased tenacity on the boards. They ended up winning the rebounding battle 39-32, grabbing 24 of those boards in the final 20 minutes. Gary Clark (10 rebounds) and Jacob Evans (seven) did the most damage, but Trevon Scott made some timely contributions and finished second on the team in rebounding percentage (18.9).
That rebounding work was a big help in the second half and was why the Bearcats scored 17 second chance points. Houston scored 16 itself, but the Bearcats had a 42.9 reading in offensive rebounding percentage, compared to a 32.4 mark from the Cougars. That clearly mattered when the final buzzer sounded.
Perhaps the most important development for the entire team was the change in success on defense over the final three quarters of the game. UC is obviously heralded as a defensive powerhouse and for good reason. However, Houston didn’t seem to care in the first half, shooting an even 50 percent from the floor and netting more field goals (16) than UC had allowed in the entirety of its previous game (14 vs. Memphis). Corey Davis Jr. and Devin Davis each had nine points in that opening frame, while Fabian White tallied 10 points in only eight minutes off the bench. This all occurred while Rob Gray, the American Athletic Conference’s top scorer entering play, was frozen in ice. Gray went 1-for-8 from the field in the first half.
But the other shoe never dropped, Gray continued to shoot poorly and UC eventually tightened up and made sure Houston missed shots, allowing just a 35.3 percent success rate in the final 20 minutes. In an incredible piece of defensive work, the Bearcats held Gray to an offensive rating of 89 and the Cougars to a final true shooting percentage of 49.1. A lot of that defensive work was done in the paint, where Kyle Washington blocked three shots, which was part of a night of eight swats for the Bearcats.
It is incredible that we’ve gone more than 500 words before the first mention of Washington because he was on another level last night. After a relatively quiet first half, the 6’9” forward cranked it up to 11 in the second. He scored 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting and played solid defense down low in the half, ending with a game-high 19 points. Washington not only helped UC shoot 42.1 percent from three-point range, he also aided in its 30-22 scoring advantage in the painted area. Washington needed to have a game like this because even though Gary Clark’s final stat line (14 points, 10 rebounds) looked good, he was in foul trouble throughout the night. Of course, even that couldn’t stop Clark from being the only Bearcat to post a defensive rating below 100.
A last point to touch on is the elephant in the room if you’re a Houston supporter. UC got much different treatment from the referees than it did against Memphis this past Saturday. The Bearcats benefited from 24 fouls from the Cougars, which led to 27 free throws, 17 of which they made. Meanwhile, Houston didn’t get to the line a lot (11 attempts) and, even when it did, there wasn’t anything free going on, with the Cougars sinking only four foul shots.
Some might point to home cooking for why this difference occurred, but UC showed against Memphis that you can win despite being hounded by fouls. Plus, the fact that Houston didn’t get as many favorable calls doesn’t erase the fact that they stopped hitting shots and playing good defense. Clearly the rematch of this game on Feb. 15 in Houston will be circled in Sharpie on the schedule for the Cougars, but let’s save the “it’s tough to beat UC and the refs” talk.
Best Individual Stat Line
One of the most troubling parts of the early going was Jacob Evans’ lack of offensive touch. Missing seven of his first eight shots, Evans was taken completely out of the game. However, he never looked shook and it paid off. Sparked by a buzzer-beating three at the end of the first half, Evans ended up with 18 points, scoring nine in the second half. He also added seven rebounds, a team-high five assists and two steals, as he produced the best all-around game of anyone on the floor, Bearcat or otherwise.