Offense learning how to handle itself

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UC earns a 69-59 win against Mount St. Mary's but has to survive a stagnant offense in the second half to hold on.


CINCINNATI - The first 20 minutes spoiled the fans. The final 20 minutes spoiled the night.


Instead of soaking in the victory against Mount St. Mary's on Monday night, the Bearcats let out a sigh of relief. The 69-59 win was half good and half bad.


To that point, blame can be directed at an offense that dried up to tune of seven second half field goals. During a 10-minute, 28-second stretch of the second half when Mount St. Mary's spun the feeling of the night from confidence builder to teachable moment, the Bearcats managed three buckets.


"We panicked early in the second half," Mick Cronin said.


The 4,083 that filled a third of Fifth Third felt the panic with them. A scoring drought allowed Mount to cut the lead to four with a minute remaining.


Cronin planned on finding out if his team can knock down clutch free throws at some time this season - he didn't expect it to be in game one against a team that finished last season with an RPI of 171.


Despite dismal free throw shooting much of the game, they knocked down 12 of 13 to close the contest and secure the win.


Over the next five days until the Bearcats take the court against IPFW, however, figuring out how to avoid scoring droughts like the one experience Monday will be the order.


Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Perhaps we should realize that a team who struggled to score last season and lost its top two players to professional basketball will experience these. Perhaps we forgot that this team will be built on defense and rebounding while watching them rack up 40 points with ease in the first half.


This offense will be a work in progress. Every player is learning how to handle new roles and new expectations. On Monday, the lesson came in the form of how to handle a charging opponent.


"Once it was around a 14- or 15-point game we tried to kick it into overdrive and score too fast, too early in the shot clock instead of just grinding and getting a basket," Cronin said. "We got a little too aggressive early and tried to force the action trying to build the lead back up. It worked against us."


Where in the first half, a pressing defense created turnovers and allowed Sean Kilpatrick to show off his skills in one of the most impressive freshman debuts since Dontonio Wingfield posted 30 points and 12 rebounds against Butler in 1993. Kilpatrick scored 13 points during a 21-6 run that allowed the Bearcats a stranglehold on the lead.


But when the team settled for perimeter jumpers instead of working the ball inside, they couldn't score enough to even set up the press. Instead, the offense slowed to a series of misses from Dion Dixon -- who struggled after five strong exhibitions - and Cashmere Wright working his way to a game high five turnovers.


"I think we got anxious," said Gates, who finished with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. "Players got anxious to, I don't know, maybe put the team on their back on their own; try to make plays out of the normal that we weren't used to or ready for."


This team will endure scoring droughts as the season goes along. All teams do. But on a team relying on a sum of the part to score points, buckets won't always come with ease when no go-to scorer exists.


The key will be learning how to pull out of those droughts. When in need of a hoop Monday, the offense ran through Gates. Passes made their way into the lane for Gates to either attack the basket or locate the open player.


It's a new role for Gates and one he'll need to adjust to as the season progresses. Particularly in the Big East where every game is decided by critical late game possessions. In big spots, the offense will be running through him all season.


"What I liked was he understood when we needed a basket for the most part," Cronin said. "He took on face-up jumper on the baseline once...but he didn't settle for fallaways. He had two great step-through moves when we needed a basket."


Now the Bearcats have a template to follow when working through scoring problems. They are learning the way out. The skill will be needed again.


That's where Cronin came away disappointed but not concerned. The numbers sit well, but the reaction from his team did.


"I am happy because I know our guys understand," Cronin said. "They get it. They have since we started practice back in August."


Maybe the second half wasn't a good game spoiled after all. Rather, a test run for this offense to learn how to deal with, well, itself.


"Every team has a drought at some point in the season," Gates said. "It shouldn't be every game. That is when you really need to worry when it is every game. I am not really worried about the drought we had tonight. It was our opener, everybody was overexcited. I'm really not worried about it. I am just worried about us getting in practice and getting better."

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