The lone negative of being a high seed in the NCAA Tournament is that there is a big bullseye on your back. The Cincinnati Bearcats had their’s plastered on them last Sunday when they won the American Athletic Conference Tournament and earned a No. 2 seed.
Obviously the 15-seed Georgia State Panthers were focused on the target all week. What with the comments from head coach Ron Hunter about Wendy’s, Ruth’s Chris and Comfort Inns, the Panthers were ready to show the Bearcats everything they had.
For a little while there, it looked like that might be enough. With D’Marcus Simonds scoring better than anyone this side of Rob Gray, the Panthers punched the two-seed right in their mouths. But the Bearcats weathered the storm and used its superior talent and presence inside to pull away for a 68-53 first round victory that was more anxiety-inducing than expected.
As noted, Simonds showed out against the vaunted UC offense. He scored 18 of the Panthers’ 30 first half points and nailed his first three three-pointers of the game. That was quite the start for a guy shooting below 30 percent from distance this season.
The problem wasn’t that UC’s defense was giving up open looks, Simonds was just making tough shots. But Simonds found his match in Jarron Cumberland, who scored 16 points in the first half and kept the Bearcats from crumbling when things weren’t going easily. Speaking of Cumberland, he went out and won this game for the Bearcats, scoring a career-high 27 points to go with 11 rebounds.
Eventually those difficult shots stopped falling for the Panthers and that allowed the Bearcats to use huge advantages on the glass to slowly climb ahead. In the first half, they had a 26-15 edge in rebounds, including 14-5 on the offensive glass. They scored 18 second chance points as well.
The defense also got UC back in it, stopping Simonds especially. Both Clark and Washington had big blocks on the GSU star, which were part of a major turning point in the period.
The Bearcats would take a 35-30 lead into the intermission, but things were not over yet.
UC went up 42-32 early in the second half and it looked like maybe it would be smooth sailing from there. But the Panthers took advantage of continued poor play from Jacob Evans, who missed most of the first half with two fouls, and crept ahead thanks to some key buckets from Isaiah Williams.
But once again, UC had an answer, pulling off a 10-0 run which was capped by a corner three from Evans, who finally made some shots down the stretch to ice the win.
Washington also made some critical shots in the second frame and finished with 13 points and four rebounds. Clark added 11 points and 13 rebounds, as the Bearcats won the battle on the glass 46-26. They also moved the ball better (14 assists) compared to GSU (three) and really just dominated the interior from start to finish.
UC (31-4) will need to play a more balanced game in the next round on Sunday when they face No. 7 seed Nevada, which ousted No. 10 seed Texas later in the day on Friday.