ORLANDO, FL – Well, that was ugly, but the top seed Cincinnati Bearcats pulled out a hard-fought 61-51 victory over a depleted SMU team to advance to the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament on Friday. The game was reminiscent of the Bearcats’ low scoring, poor-shooting slugfests they used to play in the Big East.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin opened the postgame press conference by joking, “In honor of my coach Huggins outfit today, we won without making shots,” a reference to many of Huggins’ defensive-first teams from his tenure at Cincinnati. Cronin wasn’t too far off.
Cincinnati missed its first 10 three-point attempts before Cane Broome finally connected on one with 5:36 remaining in the game. Jarron Cumberland finished the game without scoring a point for just the second time this season, and Jacob Evans added only two points, his lowest output since last February.
Cronin hailed Cumberland as the player of the game thanks to his eight assists and five rebounds. Cronin said, “He (Cumberland) just gives us a toughness that we need. He’s just a real, real competitor…if it wasn’t for him, we don’t win this game.”
Cincinnati opened the game with an early 8-3 advantage thanks to exceptional ball movement. The Bearcats hit five of their first six shots, but a 9-2 run by the Mustangs halted their momentum, and helped give SMU a 16-14 lead.
Cincinnati’s plan was to exploit its obvious size advantage in the paint. The Bearcats outscored SMU 20-10 in the paint in the first half to help build a 28-26 halftime lead. Kyle Washington led Bearcats in scoring in first half scoring with nine points, to go with three rebounds. Gary Clark added five points and seven rebounds.
The Mustangs opened the second half on a 10-3 run, as Cincinnati’s offensive woes continued. The Bearcats kept pounding the ball inside, and finally found an answer to the Mustangs’ pesky defense thanks to four consecutive baskets from Nysier Brooks and Trevon Scott. Brooks and Scott provided the energy boost Cincinnati needed, giving the Bearcats a 42-38 lead with 11:23 remaining. They wouldn’t trail again the rest of the way.
Cane Broome provided a big boost late as well, with his three-pointer to stretch the lead to six points, and then Clark added a three-pointer of his own to give Cincinnati a 57-47 lead with just 3:28 to play. Mustangs’ coach Tim Jankovich was hit with a technical foul shortly after, and the game was essentially over from there.
After the game, Jankovich said he received the technical because he pointed out the free-throw shooting disparity between the two teams. The Bearcats shot 19 free throws while the Mustangs shot just two, despite playing a more conservative style of defense than the Bearcats, who hit just 11 of their 19 free throw attempts (57.9%).
The Bearcats ended the day hitting a season-low 2-of-14 three-pointers, but they outscored SMU in the paint 38-22, and had more rebounds (39-32).
Overall, it was a sloppy game that the Bearcats would’ve easily lost if SMU had anything resembling the team they started the season with. Keith Williams and Trevor Moore were offensive and defensive liabilities, while Evans took just four shots the entire game.
The silver lining, if you’re willing to look hard enough, is that perhaps they were able to get their worst performance of the tournament out of the way early. If Cincinnati shoots the same way, and play with the same lack of intensity in the next round then they will likely see their fifth loss of the season this weekend.