With Cincinnati (26-11) beginning the second half on a 24-9 run, taking a 49-45 lead on a Cashmere Wright three with 12:18 remaining, things were looking good for Mick Cronin’s Bearcats.
But thanks in part to the defensive spark provided by point guard Aaron Craft the No. 2-seed Ohio State (30-7) were able to turn things around, going on a 20-4 run and ultimately advancing to Saturday’s East regional final against Syracuse with an 81-66 victory.
“Well, what we wanted to do was be in position and force them to make quick decisions,” noted head coach Thad Matta. “A lot of the tape we had seen of their opponents, teams hadn’t‑ we told each other, just be sound, and we weren’t sound to start the second half, but just be in the right spots at the right time.”
Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas were tough to handle in the paint, combining to score 49 points and grab 18 rebounds, but there’s no mistaking the fact that Craft’s defensive performance turned the tide of the game.
Craft finished with seven steals to go along with 11 points (all scored in the second half), five assists and four rebounds, shutting down Cincinnati point guard Cashmere Wright down the stretch.
Three of Craft’s steals came in the final 12:18 of the game, and Wright would account for as many turnovers as he had points (three) during that stretch.
As a team the Bearcats, who entered Thursday night averaging 10.6 turnovers per game, turned the ball over 18 times and when combined with their defensive struggles against Sullinger and Thomas that proved to be too much to overcome.
Wright finished with a team-high 18 points and Sean Kilpatrick added 15 for Cincinnati, who few expected to reach this point given their start to the season.
“Give Cincinnati credit, they came out and stung us to start the second half, and we had to take some timeouts there to kind of refocus what we were doing on the defensive end,” noted Matta. “And once we got that going, I thought it generated some offense for us.”