After Jermaine Sanders hit a jumper with 16:12 remaining to give No. 13 Cincinnati a 44-27 lead at No. 12 Louisville, Mick Cronin’s Bearcats looked poised to grab a two-game lead in American Athletic Conference play and do so in emphatic fashion. While the Bearcats are safely within both major national polls, there doesn’t seem to be as much attention being heaped upon this veteran group.
Sean Kilpatrick’s currently leading the American in scoring, and along with forwards Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles forms an experienced trio that has provided the production and leadership the Bearcats need. And against the Cardinals that leadership would be tested, as Louisville was able to fight its way back into the game with a pressure defense that forced numerous Cincinnati mistakes.
Cincinnati could have folded in the face of this adversity, but thanks in large part to Kilpatrick the Bearcats remained tough. Kilpatrick finished the game with 28 points, hitting four free throws in the final 8.9 seconds to preserve a 69-66 win for Cincinnati. Kilpatrick made all 11 of his free throw attempts, and Cincinnati won despite turning the ball over 20 times, with 10 of those turnovers coming during a stretch in which Louisville outscored Cincinnati 32-17.
Defensively the Bearcats were solid when they kept Louisville out of transition, one of the most important tasks for any team looking to beat the Cardinals. And Cincinnati is an extremely difficult team to score on in the half-court, with the Bearcats entering Thursday tops in the American in scoring defense, second in field goal percentage defense and third in three-point percentage defense.
Jackson’s a key factor in this, not only because of his ability to block shots but also the fact that he’s a solid defender when involved in ball-screen situations. Jackson finished Thursday’s game with 11 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots, and as a team Cincinnati limited Louisville to 6-for-21 shooting from beyond the arc. Prior to Louisville’s second half run the Bearcats took control of the game on both ends of the floor, and if not for that maybe that second half slump turns into a full-blown collapse.
Cincinnati’s veterans, most notably Kilpatrick, were able to make the plays needed to leave the KFC Yum! Center with a win, strengthening their grip on first place in the American (they have wins at both Louisville and Memphis). And that experience is the biggest reason why the Bearcats have the potential to be a tough out come March.