ORLANDO, FL – It took sixty minutes of game time, but the Cincinnati Bearcats finally showed up to the American Athletic Conference tournament on Saturday, storming back from a 13-point halftime deficit to defeat the Memphis Tigers 70-60. Cincinnati advances to the AAC Championship game to face either Houston or Wichita State on Sunday.
Absolutely nothing went right for Cincinnati at the start. Memphis came out hot with back-to-back three-pointers from Jamal Johnson. The Tigers quickly built a 9-2 lead as Cincinnati’s flat shooting and uninspired effort against SMU on Friday carried over to Saturday.
Kyle Washington appeared to be the only player to arrive with intensity and emotion, but he allowed that emotion to get the best of him with two quick fouls that limited him to just five minutes of action in the first half.
Washington talked about his apparent extra intensity after the game, saying, “that’s just me being grateful for the game and grateful that I’m doing my job and grateful that my team’s doing their job.”
The Bearcats’ struggles from the free throw line continued as well, hitting just two of seven attempts in the half.
The key difference was Johnson though. The freshman from Birmingham, AL nearly matched his season-high point total in just the first half. Johnson scored 17 points, hitting all five of his shots, including four three-pointers. Memphis hit seven of their 12 three-point attempts in the first half to jump out to a 42-29 halftime lead.
After the game, coach Mick Cronin said, “Hopefully we learned a lesson, that other team, no matter what their record, no matter what the situation may be…that team is coming to win.”
The Bearcats got the message to start the second half. Cincinnati used a 21-2 run to open the half to flip the momentum and take control of the game.
Jarron Cumberland started the scoring barrage with a quick three-pointer, and Justin Jenifer followed shortly after with a three-pointer of his own to help cut the Memphis lead to just 42-37.
Clark talked about the importance of getting off to that fast start in the first half, he said, “One thing we try to preach is the first five minutes, if we’re up or we’re down. In the first five minutes usually it determines how that game’s going to go.”
Clark had a big role in that comeback as well, finishing the game with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Cumberland the run by hitting a pair of three-pointers that extended the Bearcats lead to 55-48. Cumberland bounced back from a low-scoring game on Friday to lead the Bearcats in scoring with 18 points, and four rebounds.
The key to the Bearcats second-half dominance was their trademark, unrelenting defense. Cincinnati held Memphis to just 5-27 (18.5%) shooting in the second half. Johnson, who dominated the first half didn’t score in the second.
The Bearcats also did a better job of rebounding the ball in the second half, after getting outrebounded 18-13 in the first half. Coach Cronin credited the Tigers’ effort saying “They kept us off the backboard. It’s not like we didn’t try to rebound.”
Memphis was never able to get closer than six points down the stretch, and Cincinnati celebrated a second straight escape here in Orlando.
The win improves the Bearcats record to 29-4. It’s the only time in program history that Cincinnati has at least 29 games in back to back seasons. They’ll have a chance to match last season’s win total tomorrow in the championship game tomorrow.
Cronin was asked after the game if the tournament matters to him and he pointed to his two seniors (Clark and Washington) and said “That’s what this is about. They could have two games left in their college career…Gary Clark and Kyle Washington have never cut down nets after a game in their high school career or their college career..”
If Cincinnati plays with the same level of defensive intensity that they did in the second half against Memphis, then they may very well get that opportunity on Sunday.