It may not have been as heartbreaking as their collapse against Nevada last year, but the Cincinnati Bearcats let another winnable NCAA Tournament game get away from them on Friday in their 79-72 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes.
For the Bearcats, it was just another in a long line of March frustrations. For a team that is almost always dancing thanks to nine-straight appearances, they have not been able to stay on the floor for very long. The last time they got past the second weekend was in 2012 and they have only done that twice in the last two decades. It really makes it feel as if the program is stuck. Its definitely a place any team would like to be, with consistent postseason play, but at some point the Bearcats need to do something with those tournament opportunities.
In their latest stumble, the Bearcats once again looked like a team on a mission before crumbling. They led by as many as 13 points in the first half and had a 12-point edge with 12:43 to play in that opening period. However, a 9-2 run from the Hawkeyes, punctuated by a shot from Jordan Bohannon right before the buzzer, took away all the momentum the Bearcats had built.
That became even more clear in the second half, when the Hawkeyes started strong and kept it up, knocking down 65 percent of their shots from the field. The sequence that really cemented the loss for the Bearcats was a 10-2 Iowa sprint from 4:20 to 1:07 to play, which turned a 62-62 tie into a 72-64 deficit. Unfortunately, the Bearcats are a team built to hold a close lead, not overcome one, which made a deficit of eight points seem more like 100.
The Bearcats’ defensive breakdown occurred in a familiar territory. The second-worst three-point shooting defense in the American Athletic Conference really lived up to that billing. Iowa shooters were constantly left with clean looks from three and they took advantage, draining 7-of-11 and outscoring the Bearcats 33-18 from distance. Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp hit the most (4-of-6), but both Luka Garza and Nicholas Baer made a pair apiece. The Bearcats actually took more triples than the Hawkeyes, partially due to a number of desperate attempts in the final minute, but connected on only 22.2 percent.
Getting back to Garza, the 6’11” sophomore really dominated against the Bearcats, scoring a game-high 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting. He and the rest of the Hawkeyes were able to find so much offensive success especially as Nysier Brooks dealt with foul trouble and eventually fouled out. Brooks was the Bearcats’ leader in defensive rating among regular rotation players this season, so not having him out there down the stretch made it even more difficult to get stops. That point is illustrated by the fact that the Bearcats outscored the Hawkeyes by 12 with Brooks on the floor. No other Bearcat had a positive plus/minus.
The Bearcats’ defense did do a great job against Iowa’s top scorer. Tyler Cook, who was averaging 14.9 points per game entering play, but had only five points on 1-of-9 shooting. It didn’t end up mattering and unlike other times in the season, they can’t carry over such a positive into the next game.
Even when the Bearcats did succeed, there was something holding them back. They had half as many giveaways as the Hawkeyes (14-7), but were still outscored 15-11 off of turnovers. They also maintained their standing as a top team on the offensive glass with 12 offensive rebounds and 13 second chance points compared with seven and six from the Hawkeyes. However, Iowa didn’t really need second chances since their first tries were successful more often than not in the second half.
Following this loss, the Bearcats are now in the difficult position of once again having to wait until next year to find some level of success in the NCAA Tournament. That doesn’t take away their AAC title or their 28 wins, but those accolades won’t soften the blow of yet another March letdown.
Best Individual Stat Line - Justin Jenifer
Is his final game as a Bearcat, the senior point guard led the team with 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting. He was especially good in the first half, tallying 12 points on 4-of-8 from the field.