Needless to say, there was plenty of second-guessing after the recent Marquette loss at Fifth Third Arena. Most of it centered around the playing time (or lack of) for two of UC's biggest threats, Yancy Gates and Lance Stephenson. Gates wasn't on the floor for the game's final seven minutes and change, while Stephenson watched 29 of the game's 40 minutes from a courtside seat
Wednesday night, purposeful or not, those same two players played key roles in helping the Bearcats get a badly needed win over DePaul 74-69. Stephenson played 31 minutes and racked up 18 points and 10 rebounds; Gates played 33 minutes and recorded 23 points and eight rebounds.
After watching helplessly as the Bearcats fell at home to Marquette, Gates and Stephenson had plenty of motivation to perform well.
"A little bit," agreed Gates. "Just trying to keep hope alive to make a run at these last three games for the tournament."
Those last three games are at West Virginia, Villanova here and at Georgetown. However, without a win over DePaul, it would probably be too little, too late. Plus, the ironic twist would be that DePaul would have a say in pretty much ending UC's season, just as they did last year in New York City.
"Couple of us talked about what happened to us last year in the Big East tournament, with DePaul not winning any games, then finally winning one against us," said Gates. "We just kind of didn't want to lose this game, not only for last year but working for our season this year."
While many have the Bearcats NIT-bound at best, the UC Bearcats still have a distant goal of making the Field of 65, a/k/a, "The Dance".
"Yeah, we do," said Gates when asked if he thought UC could pull it all off. "With the end of our schedule, we play three ranked teams and we still have the Big East tournament. If we have a good showing, we still have a chance to slide our way back in to the NCAA tournament."
Truthfully, if Gates and Stephenson could pull off numbers like this in every game, UC would be a shoo-in. To get numbers like this, Lance Stephenson has pulled some late nights in the gym. With redshirting teammate Sean Kilpatrick, Stephenson has been getting in periodic extra work from 11 p.m. 'til 2 a.m. Obviously, an 11 minute cameo is not what Stephenson has been looking for in college basketball.
"Just made me want to go in the gym more," said Stephenson of his recent benching. "I stayed in the gym 'til 2 (a.m.) yesterday and just kept working on my stuff to be perfect for today's game."
While it was far from perfect, most coaches will take a double-double from a struggling freshman any day. As for the extra work, Stephenson has put in several "Wilson Pickett Midnight Hour" workouts, trying to gain the upper edge.
"I was working on my jump shots, coming off picks and curling and fading shots, like when I fade off a pick," Stephenson said of his regimen in the wee hours of the morning. "I did it about three times but I've got to do it more to get better."
In addition to jump shots, Stephenson apparently was working on some levitation as his in-you-face dunk right before halftime caught the crowd's attention. Before that, the 8,111 crowd was subdued at this one. At times, this game had all of the excitement of an early season exhibition with Bellarmine.
Then "Born Ready" went airborne with a special delivery to the mighty orange cylinder. Stephenson shrugged it off, while Gates revealed his numerical score of the slam."
"10--we put up 10," said Gates from the judges panel.
As giddy as Gates and the Bearcats were of the jam, Stephenson to play it low-key.
"I just went to the basket hard," he said. "I know I can dunk on people, I just went hard and jumped."
That gave UC a nine-point lead at the break, something that didn't stick as DePaul kept playing and UC kept missing free throws that would've made this contest a complete blowout. Instead, after shooting 8-16 against Marquette, they came back tonight to hit a paltry 14-32 (43.8 percent).
"That's bothered all of us a lot," said Gates (1-5 on the night). "We go through the drills and things where we have to make them in practice and we make them for the most part. When we see 'Ta miss a free throw or Dion Dixon, those are two players that in practice probably won't miss a free throw. I know it's frustrating for them. It's kind of different when you come out and see those guys missing free throws also."
Three-point shooting also left much to be desired in this one with the Bearcats missing all nine of their attempts beyond the arc. To have any success at all in March, you must make at least SOME threes. And, you can't clank more than 50 percent of your free throws.
Then there's the intensity issue. Too often, UC plays to the level of their opponent. As they found out last year in round one of the Big East tourney, that can get you an early ticket home.
"We have to play extremely hard and better than we've been playing here lately," admitted Gates. "It's going to take a huge push from the whole team, not just a couple players. It's going to involve everybody to make it happen. We feel that we have the players do that."
When Yancy Gates and Lance Stephenson can lead the team in game minutes and almost tandem "double-doubles", anything is possible.