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Toughness a sign of success

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The Bearcats 72-56 win against Rutgers displayed a toughness they will need to surive the decisive final month of the regular season.

 

CINCINNATI - The Big East grind claims victims every day. This week its claimed more than its fair share.

 

No. 2 Pitt, No. 10 Syracuse, No. 7 Villanova - all left in the wake of an 18-game assembly line of mental and physical tests.

 

The glamour and pizzazz didn't come to town Wednesday night with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, but all the intensity of Big East basketball sure did.

 

Intensity and toughness oozed from their bodies to their jerseys and eventually onto the scoreboard. Midway through the first half it morphed into swagger. Robert Lumpkins talked trash to Rashad Bishop up and down Fifth Third Arena. James Beatty jumped in the air and pounded his chest as the lead swelled to six points.

 

Every pass, every dribble, every screen was contested. For a team like Rutgers, low on the Big East talent scale, they live pushing the energy needle.

 

Anybody following the Bearcats this season can attest, the Bearcats utilize the same formula.

 

At halftime, Mick Cronin scanned the eyes of a team being beat at its own game.

 

"I didn't' lose it at halftime on them, but I got after (Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon)," Cronin said. "If there is a loose ball you have to go after it like its gold. We are playing for our lives. It's what we trained all summer for, what are we here for."

 

The response he received in both leadership and effort, served as the latest example of why UC appears as prepared to handle the Big East as in any season during Cronin's tenure.

 

"That's the best second half we have played all year," Cronin said to open his postgame press conference. "We went after loose balls the way we are supposed to go after loose balls. Our effort in the second half was off the charts it was as good as its been in a long time."

 

Wright slid across the floor for a steal that led to a Bishop dunk. Dixon scrambled to swipe and intercept passes and his way to three steals.

 

"They both met the challenge," Cronin said.  

 

The waves of UC pressure forced the Knights into nine second-half turnovers.

 

On the way to the 72-56 victory, the Bearcats outhustled the hustlers. They outlasted the grinders. They outscrapped the scrappers.

 

Anybody skimming box scores Thursday morning won't recognize what that means. UC won a game it was favored to win by double digits.

 

Yet, stepping back from Wednesday night and viewing the conference picture through a long view, finding itself in a midseason brawl and surfacing battered, bruised but victorious speaks volumes about the potential to survive the grind.

 

"They make you beat them," Cronin said. "They will not give you the game. I knew we weren't going to be able to press them and they weren't going to just fold up the tent. We were going to have to grind out a win tonight. We played extremely hard in the second half on both ends of the floor."

 

It also helps the Bearcats hit a few big shots. Rashad Bishop's final field goal of the night, a 3-pointer from the wing, put the exclamation point on what Cronin called "one of the best games of his career," and enough space to put down Rutgers.

 

Bishop finished with 20 points, four assists, two blocks and zero turnovers. As will be the case with the Bearcats all season, more than any of his made shots, Bishop's relentless defense provided the truest impact on the final score.

 

"He may be the best on-the-ball defender in America," Cronin said.

 

Combined with the depth of defensive pressure applied all night, Rutgers couldn't keep pace. With each steal, trap and deflection, the it grinded down.

 

Of course, that's always the plan with this group.

 

"We knew if we try to speed the game up and make them do more dribbling, not necessarily try to turn them over, just the extra dribbles and unnecessary spins and stuff to try to wear them down," said Yancy Gates, who finished with a double-double of 11 points and 12 rebounds. "When we started getting on the stretches on the breaks, Dion got a couple passes off steals just on fatigue passes from their guards. I think that is when it really started to show their legs were started to go on them."

 

The overall effect of the Bearcats depth and energy level wasn't lost on Rutgers coach Mike Rice. 

 

"Every coach probably says no," Rice said when asked if his team was worn down. "But yeah, they always came in waves. I would say that was a factor."

 

Rice said the Bearcats hit them with a right hook and sent to their knees in the second half. In so many ways, the prizefight analogy sums enduring  games one through 18 in this conference. It will be a battle of attrition.

 

Even the strongest fighters in the league are dropping up and down the coast.

 

Cincinnati took the best shot of a Rutgers team and were bounced back onto the ropes. They responded with passion, toughness and urgency.

 

Over the next month and a half, this team will stumble back onto the ropes again, but if they continue to respond as they did in the second half Wednesday night, they will end up surviving the toughest fight in college basketball.

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