The Cincinnati Bearcats resounding 78-63 victory over the Missouri Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night was anything but an ordinary win for Bearcats fans.
To those clad in red and black, on the edge of their chairs and sofas as midnight approached on the first day of real NCAA Tournament games, Cincinnati’s first tournament game in six years was a a sign of resurrection.
It is no secret that the once storied Bearcats (26-8) – winners of two National Championships, holders of the record (5) of consecutive Final Four appearances, owners of one of the longest strings of NCAA Tournament appearances throughout the 90’s and early 00’s – have been struggling through a massive rebuilding process since the ouster of Bob Huggins. And here they were, on the precipice of regaining their status as one of the great basketball programs.
Of course, the No. 6 seed Bearcats still had those doubters; namely, everyone except Bearcats fans. No more than one or two sports reporters – the so called experts – chose the Bearcats to top the No. 11 seed Missouri Tigers. Vegas was equally as skeptical, giving the ‘Cats only a 2 point advantage.
''A lot of people had us losing because it was our first time in,'' said UC’s Yancy Gates, who had 18 points, 11 rebounds and doubled his 3-point output for the season by making one in each half. ''The first time in, we got a win.''
The game was billed as a battle of tempos. How will Cincinnati survive in Mizzou’s “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball?”
The answer: defense. One of the stingiest teams in the country held Missouri to 29 percent shooting in the first half and 38 percent for the game. The Tigers couldn't get a basket to fall from the 7:27 mark of the first half to 16:48 mark of the second; they fell far short of their average of 81.4 points per game.
Eleven straight minutes without a field goal allowed.
The offense for UC was equally as potent. Along with Gates’ substantial performance, Dion Dixon added 16 points, and Cashmere Wright had 11 points and seven assists for the Bearcats. As a team, the ‘Cats shot 62 percent in the second half and 54 percent for the game.
The Tigers had the experience, having won their opening game in the tournament each of the last two years, while the only Cincinnati player with NCAA experience was transfer Ibrahima Thomas.
But Missouri only forced 11 turnovers, well below its average. On offense, the Tigers found themselves having to use more of the shot clock that they'd prefer, especially when Cincinnati switched to a zone.
Ricardo Ratliffe scored 13 points, but fellow starters Laurence Bowers, Marcus Denmon and Kim English were a combined 8 for 27 from the field for the Tigers (23-11), who finished the season losing five of six.
The Tigers didn't get a single point from their reserves in the first half, but Phil Pressley led a one-man rally with three baskets and one assist to cut the deficit to six midway through the second half.
But Gates began to take over from there. His inside bucket pushed the lead to 12 with 5:03 to go, and he helped account for Cincinnati's 21-10 advantage in second-chance points.
And then there were his 3-pointers, including one that made it 70-55 with 4 1/2 minutes left. He was 2 for 12 from long range entering the game; he was 2 for 2 on Thursday.
''On one, the shot clock was running down. The second one, I don't know, really. I was just in rhythm. I just felt like it was a good shot and it went in,'' said Gates, laughing so hard he could barely finish the sentence.
Coach Cronin chimed in: ''You don't have to make excuses.''
Next: No. 6 Cincinnati v. No. 3 Connecticut
When: Saturday, March 19th
Time: 9:40 P.M.