Hobbled but Hopeful

Mick Cronin’s Bearcats look to put a regular season full of tough breaks behind them

Mar 16, 2016 at 11:10 am
click to enlarge Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis
Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis

Octavius Ellis admitted that when teammate Kevin Johnson

made a 3-point shot to give the University of Cincinnati basketball team an 88-85 lead over Connecticut with eight-tenths of a second remaining in the American Athletic Conference tournament, his first reaction was to run to Johnson and hug him for winning the game for the Bearcats. 

Ellis, UC’s senior center, then had a second reaction: Oh, no.

Although there was less than 1 second left in the third overtime the teams had battled through, the game wasn’t over. UConn’s Jalen Adams banked in his own 3-pointer from well beyond half court to keep the game going into a fourth extra period of play, where UConn finished off a 104-97 victory.

“I was so happy Kev hit the shot I ran and hugged Kev. I turned around and the shot was in the air,” said Ellis, who then mimicked watching the ball sail toward the basket. “It was in the air for like five seconds. Slow motion.”

While there was controversy over the legitimacy of Adams’ shot — there is distinct video evidence that the clock operator didn’t start the clock on time, enabling Adams the extra fraction of a second to legally make his desperation heave from 75 feet away — the play and the final score were a microcosm of UC’s season. They are also motivators as the Bearcats head to their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

UC (22-10) was given the No. 9 seed in the West Regional and will face No. 8 Saint Joseph’s (27-7) Friday night in Spokane, Wash., in the second round. The winner has a likely third-round matchup against No. 1-seed Oregon, the regular season and conference tournament champion from the Pac 12, on Sunday. The Ducks (28-6) will play their first round game against either Holy Cross (14-19) or Southern (22-12), which play in a First Four game in Dayton on Wednesday.

The Bearcats returned all five starters and two key reserve players from last year’s team that lost to then-undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA tournament, leading to high expectations entering this season. Those expectations took early hits after the team lost three home games in December, including two of the five two-point losses it would suffer in the regular season. The UConn loss dropped them to 0-3 in overtime games and made seven losses in which the Bearcats held a lead with five minutes or less remaining in a game.

“We try to be tough to beat, and when we make shots we’re really hard to beat, and when the clock starts on time, we’re really difficult to beat,” said head coach Mick Cronin on Sunday after the NCAA brackets were released. Still obviously upset about the Adams shot, Cronin looked for a way to turn it into a positive for his players.

“I told them in there, I think it was the final straw. Let’s get all bad luck, unfairness and bad things out of the way,” Cronin said. “It’s our time to be lucky.”

Luck wasn’t much of a factor in the play of junior point guard Troy Caupain, who last week was named first team All-AAC after leading UC in scoring (13.2 points per game), assists (4.9) and minutes played (33.4) this season. Caupain has been at his best recently, averaging 24.3 points in his last four games, including 37 against UConn when the four overtime periods accounted for a full extra half of basketball — Caupain played 56 of those 60 minutes.

“He’s the leader of the team, the vocal (leader) of the team, so when we see him playing good we just feed off him,” said Ellis.

The extra time off after being knocked out of the AAC tournament by UConn could end up helping the Bearcats, who are hurting, with injuries to several key players. Sophomore forward Gary Clark sprained his ankle the day before the game against UConn, but still scored 12 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 48 minutes. Senior forward Shaq Thomas has had foot and ankle issues, then suffered a groin strain that forced him to miss the last three games of the regular season. He played just 13 minutes against UConn. Senior guard Farad Cobb is battling a knee injury, while freshman guard Jacob Evans twisted an ankle against UConn.

UC’s opponent on Friday is Saint Joseph’s of the Atlantic 10, which finished one game behind tri-champions Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth and St. Bonaventure in the regular season standings. Saint Joseph’s won th A10’s tournament, however, beating Dayton in the semifinals and VCU in the championship game. The Hawks feature three players who average double figures in scoring: forwards Isaiah Miles (18.4) and DeAndre’ Bembry (17.3) and guard Aaron Brown (10.3).

UC leads the all-time series with Saint Joseph’s, 3-1, but the programs haven’t played since 1969. This is UC’s 30th overall appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Bearcats are one of just eight programs that have a current streak of six straight appearances. They last reached the Sweet 16 in 2012.

None of that will mean anything when tip time comes against Saint Joseph’s.

“I don’t want to put a cap on it,” said Cobb of how far this team can go. “Let’s just go and get some wins in the tournament and see what happens. I think that will take care of all the things that we were supposed to do at this point, just winning the tournament.”

The University of Cincinnati plays St. Joseph’s in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 9:57 p.m. Friday in Spokane, Wash.