It’s never a bad time to reminisce in the beauty of the old Big East tournament.
The day was March 8, 2012, and a feisty Cincinnati Bearcats squad was in the midst of solidifying the program as a regular in the NCAA Tournament. UC had only made the tournament once out of the previous six years, but had made pit stops in the NIT and CBI. At one of the many heights of the Big East, 2012 was the first time Cincinnati found itself as a true contender for the coveted tournament — something that it hadn’t achieved since joining the conference.
In 2007, UC didn’t even qualify for the tournament. In 2008, it lost in the first round to Pitt. In 2009, it was upset by DePaul, and March became March Sadness rather than madness.
Then, a breakthrough.
As the No. 11 seed in the 2010 edition of the Big East Tournament, the Bearcats fought off Rutgers 69-68 in the first round, then took down rival and No. 6-seed Louisville 69-66 before falling to West Virginia in the quarterfinals off a wild buzzer-beating 3-pointer. In 2011, Cincinnati made the quarterfinals again, but was blown out by Notre Dame. Despite making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 when Bob Huggins was at the helm, the desire to see the Cats be the ones lifting the Big East trophy only grew.
A year later, the dream slowly — but surely — started to not be as far-fetched as many thought.
On a cool New York night, a fourth-seeded Cincinnati team had a date with nationally ranked No. 13 Georgetown, led by Henry Sims and Otto Porter Jr. Many had already painted the picture of the Hoyas meeting then-No. 2 Syracuse in what would’ve been a classic Big East rivalry game.
Cronin and his team had different ideas.
His team had players that became famous in Bearcat lore. Cashmere Wright, Yancy Gates, Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick went to battle with Georgetown, but it still was going to take a spirited effort to advance to the semifinals.
Down 30-24 at the half, Cincinnati struggled in many aspects. Shooting was an issue — especially beyond the arc — but the Hoyas were doing just find. Their biggest problem was getting long-range opportunities, only getting 10 shots from downtown through the entire game.
Despite neither team being able to find sustained success shooting the ball, a battle was happening in the paint. Gates and Sims went back and forth and their battle down low carried into the second half. It culminated into the final moments of the second stanza when Sims found Porter who tied the game at 54 with less than 25 seconds remaining. The Bearcats couldn’t create a solid scoring chance, and thus brought the first overtime period.
At 61-60 with 19.7 seconds left, Dion Dixon went 1-of-2 from the free-throw line, giving Georgetown the chance to tie or win. Then, Sims took over and barged his way through the paint to knot the score at 62 and sent the game to a second overtime period. At the time, it was the first multi-overtime game since the famous six-OT game between Connecticut and Syracuse in 2009.
Then, it was Cashmere’s time to shine.
Up 70-68 with 28.7 seconds left, Sims got the ball down low, quickly turned and his fadeaway shot rolled in. Cronin had two timeouts, but he decided to let the game’s momentum unfold naturally. The Bearcats had less than 30 seconds to earn a spot in the semifinals, meaning someone had to step up.
Everyone in Madison Square Garden knew the ideal target would be Gates, who finished the game with 23 points and eight rebounds. However, Dixon brought the ball up the floor, swung to Kilpatrick on the right wing, but the ball was quickly kicked back to Dixon. He and Wright tried a pick-and-roll, but instead of rolling toward the basket, Wright peeled to the top of the key. Dixon gave it to Wright, who took a couple of dribbles before making his move.
A quick sprint through the paint beat his defender and the Savannah, Georgia, native rose high to let a floater go. Two defenders collapsed and tried contended Wright’s shot, but to no avail. In what seemed like minutes, Wright’s shot banked in, giving the Cats a 72-70 lead.
Georgetown wouldn’t tie it. Cincinnati had a date with Syracuse, who was No. 2 in the country at the time and led by Fab Melo, Scoop Jardine and C.J. Fair. It was the first time since joining the conference UC made it to the semifinals, but it also
Wright’s buzzer beater in the 2012 Big East quarterfinals paved the way for Cincinnati men’s basketball to cement itself as a nationally known program. It didn’t win a trophy, but it earned the respect of many. A team that was trying to replicate success it had in the Huggins era took down a historic program in Georgetown.
Heads turned, people looked and Cincinnati basketball was back on the map.