ORLANDO, FL – Nothing comes easy for this Bearcats team, but sometimes that makes victory all the sweeter. Cincinnati claimed their first American Athletic Conference tournament championship with a dramatic 56-55 victory over the Houston Cougars on Sunday.
With the exception of the first five minutes, this game was a microcosm of Cincinnati’s entire stay here in Orlando. The Bearcats shot poorly in every phase of the game, but defended their butts off when it mattered most to pull out the victory.
Uncharacteristically, Cincinnati got off to a scorching hot start from the field, knocking down four of their first five shots, including two three-pointers from Gary Clark that helped the Bearcats build a 12-2 lead in less than five minutes.
Everything was going right for the Bearcats until all of the sudden it went horribly wrong. Led by Corey Davis Jr. who scored 15 points in the first half, the Cougars started making shots, and just didn’t stop. Houston used a 16-2 over just 3:08 to build a 27-22 lead.
Cincinnati went cold from the field, failing to hit another three-pointer for the remainder of the half.
A highlight reel dunk from Gary Clark with six seconds remaining cut the Bearcats deficit to 37-35 as the teams entered halftime.
The second half was yet another defensive masterpiece by Cincinnati. Houston hit just six of 30 shots (20.0%) in the half, including 0-10 from behind the three-point line.
However, the Bearcats were almost just as cold, hitting just six of 18 shots (33.3%), and just two of eight three-point attempts.
Both teams repeatedly failed to put the ball through the net, and began racking up fouls as the refs started calling a much tighter game.
The score remained tied 44-42 for well over four minutes as Cincinnati struggled from both the field and the free throw line.
As was the case throughout the tournament, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington came to the rescue. Clark added the title AAC Tournament MVP to his resume, scoring 20 points and adding 12 rebounds in the victory.
Perhaps the biggest shot of the game came when Washington pulled up behind the arc with the Bearcats trailing 55-52, to knock down the game tying three-pointer.
Clark then nabbed a rebound off a Rob Gray missed three-pointer, and got fouled by Nura Zanna. Clark knocked down one of two to give Cincinnati the lead, and Gray then turned the ball back over to Cincinnati with a second remaining to seal the win for the Bearcats.
It was as clutch a win as the Bearcats experienced all season. The shot from Washington, and yet another game-saving defensive stand proved this team has what it takes to win when their backs are against the wall in March.
Now let’s see if they can do it in Nashville next weekend too.