That one really hurt.
Not because Bob Huggins was on the opposing bench. And not because Fifth Third Arena was sold out for only the second time this year.
It hurt because it was a home game against a wounded opponent in a league with a razor-thin margin for error.
But let's be fair - it wasn't the upset of the century. Even without leading scorer Casey Mitchell,
"It's almost like our guys expected that we were just going to come out and win and thought that we were better than West Virginia," head coach Mick Cronin said. "Three Top 10 teams in our league lost today. In every Big East game, whoever plays better that night is going to win. Did we expect to just come in here and win or did we expect to come in here and grind it out? When we struggled, it was almost like it was a shock for us."
I attended practice on Thursday and watched Coach Cronin tell his team exactly what to expect from the Mountaineers. He warned them it would be an all-out war. But when the 'Cats started to fall behind in the second half on Saturday night, they self-destructed by taking some bad shots and failing to dig down and get stops on defense.
"We missed a lot of open shots and we let that affect us," Cronin said. "We let the pressure of the game affect us. You can never let your offense affect your defense, because offense comes and goes. As bad as our shot-making was, we still have a chance to win if we keep Joe Mazzulla (16 points, 8 assists) out of the lane. The reason why we were fouling is because they got into the paint. And when they ran pick-and-rolls, we didn't execute our defense to get the ball stopped. Those are areas that we've been excellent in all year. We were so concerned with our offense that we were not locked in defensively. It's the ultimate challenge as a team to do that but you have to do it. In our league every game is a bloodbath. We couldn't make a shot and couldn't make a free throw, so how do you win - you've got to hold them down. We have to learn from it. I'm disappointed in our response when we got down."
I have maintained since the start of Big East play that a 10-8 league record will get UC to the NCAA Tournament, and at the halfway point of the conference schedule, the 'Cats are on pace at 5-4. The schedule in the second half looks tougher, but there are no guaranteed wins - or losses - in the Big East.
The Bearcats fate remains in their hands. Unfortunately, for the first time this year, they let a game that they should have won slip through their fingers.
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