ORLANDO, Fla. — For the second straight day, the No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats struggled but survived in the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
Coach Mick Cronin hopes that with the NCAA Tournament just a few days away, his players have learned their lesson.
“Hopefully, we learned a lesson that the other team — no matter their record or their situation — is coming to win,” Cronin said after the top-seeded Bearcats rallied to beat Memphis 70-60 on Saturday and advance to their second straight AAC Tournament final. “I think we were in shock that (Memphis) actually came out with confidence and wasn’t afraid of us.
“That’s going to be the same next week.”
Jarron Cumberland scored 18 points and Gary Clark had 17 points and 12 rebounds to help Cincinnati rally from a 13-point halftime deficit against Memphis, a day after the Bearcats overcame a six-point second-half deficit to beat SMU in the quarterfinals. Kyle Washington added 11 for the Bearcats, who advanced to play the winner of the Houston-Wichita State game later Saturday.
Jamal Johnson led Memphis with 17 points, but he didn’t score in the second half, when the Tigers wilted under intense defensive pressure from Cincinnati. Kyvon Davenport had 12 points and 11 rebounds for Memphis (21-13), which shot 51.9 percent in the first half but just 18.5 percent (5 of 27) in the second.
“When you make shots, things go a lot smoother and look a lot easier,” Tigers coach Tubby Smith said. “I thought we kind of got them back on their heels in the first half because we were attacking the basket and making shots. But we just didn’t seem to match Cincinnati’s intensity in the second half.”
Cincinnati trailed 42-29 at halftime but wiped out all of that in the first seven minutes of the second half with an active and aggressive defense.
Jacob Evans chased Johnson all over the floor and held him to 0-for-4 shooting after the freshman guard had hit all five of his field attempts in the first half, including four 3-pointers.
“He lit us up,” Clark said of Johnson’s first-half shooting. “When you let a guy like that get comfortable, the rim gets bigger. We didn’t let him get comfortable in the second half.”
Memphis missed 14 of its first 15 shots to start the second half and had two turnovers. That many opportunities put some life in the Cincinnati offense, which was dormant to that point.
The Bearcats went on a 21-2 run to start the second half that featured contributions from all five starters, including three 3-pointers from Cumberland, who ended the run with a 3 that gave Cincinnati a 50-44 lead.
The Bearcats were never seriously challenged after that. They made 10 of their last 11 free throws to seal the game.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats were projected to be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and nothing that happens in the AAC Tournament likely would have changed that. However, Cincinnati hasn’t won a conference tournament since 2004 (in Conference USA) and Cronin has made a point of telling his players they need to finish something this season.
Memphis: The Tigers played really well at the end of the season, winning seven of their last nine and dominating Cincinnati for a half. The question now is whether that was enough to save Smith’s job. The Memphis coach was asked if he expected to be back next season and responded: “Who knows?”
Cincinnati: Faces the winner of Wichita State-Houston.
Memphis: Awaits word on a possible NIT berth.