When Yancy Gates’ right hook landed on Kenny Frease’s cheek and sent him to the ground during Cincinnati’s ugly and infamous brawl with Xavier on Dec. 10, it looked like the Bearcats hopes for 2011-12 dissolved in the pandemonium.
Now, that Cincinnati Bearcats team, the team that lost to Presbyterian at home and helped to escalate the most unfortunate on-court happening in recent memory, that team is long gone.
On Wednesday night in Storrs, Cincinnati notched their third statement win of the Big East season, surviving a second-half push from the defending national champions and sinking No. 11 Connecticut, 70-67.
After a first half highlighted by 7-of-14 Cincinnati shooting from beyond the arc and a nine-point Bearcat lead, heading into the break, the Huskies ripped off a 19-6 run in the second half to storm back and take the lead with just over 10 minutes to play.
But that was to be expected.
Cincinnati’s power came in the resurgence, a counteroffensive that began, fittingly, with a three-pointer from Dion Dixon, ending a four-minute scoring drought and putting the Bearcats ahead, 53-52.
Nine minutes of back-and-forth basketball came down to the last 10 seconds, when Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier hit a deep three from the right wing, tying the ballgame at 67.
With coach Mick Cronin choosing not to use a timeout, Sean Kilpatrick’s three-pointer with two seconds remaining put the Bearcats up for good. He finished with a team-high 16 points.
Kilpatrick continues to thrive, while flying under the national radar, averaging 16 points and nearly five rebounds on the year.
“You try to watch and see who has the ball,” Cronin said of the final possession. “Once I saw [Kilpatrick] had it, I liked our chances.”
These are the revitalized Bearcats. The brawl will not soon be forgotten and the labels will linger, but it is difficult to deny the strengths of Mick Cronin’s team.
During his team’s 10-1 stretch, following the fight, the Bearcats are averaging 10.5 made three-pointers per game.
With Yancy Gates suspended for six games earlier in the year, they needed to adapt, and necessity is the mother of invention.
Going with a smaller, four-guard, four-out lineup, Cincinnati has been able to spread the floor and create on the perimeter for guards Cashmere Wright, and the aforementioned Dixon and Kilpatrick.
And Gates has contributed in his return, putting up a double-double against Connecticut, with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
“We got answers on the offensive end, but we started defensive rebounding,” said Cronin. “We’re a team that can pick up the defense.”
Questions have been raised as to who “the second team” is in the Big East, the team that could challenge Syracuse at the top of the conference.
Louisville had its time and slipped, Georgetown has cooled a bit, the same West Virginia, and Marquette. Now, with this win over the Huskies, it looks like Cincinnati could be the flavor of the week.
After a road matchup with West Virginia, the Bearcats will get their chance against No. 1 Syracuse.
Presented with his upcoming schedule, Cronin could do little more than joke, “It gets a lot easier, doesn’t it?”