A rejuvenated effort in a 71-43 victory against Northwest Louisiana from an embarrassed UC basketball team provided the Bearcats best game of the young season and essential rebound from the loss to Presbyterian.
CINCINNATI - When asked how the last 48 hours have been, Sean Kilpatrick temporarily struggled to find the words.
Of course, he didn't need to speak. His face said it all.
Kilpatrick shook his head on repeat and placed his hand on his forehead. The screaming and yelling that has been echoing throughout Fifth Third Arena the past two days could almost be heard banging around Kilpatrick's head.
"Coach, he let us have it," he said. "Then again, he told us it is not our fault it is his fault. That is tough coming from a coach. He's coaching, but we are doing all the work. We are playing. The last couple days is crazy, though. It was kind of embarrassing, to be honest with you."
Mick Cronin wishes embarrassment was his only problem. The days since Presbyterian hung a 56-54 loss on the Bearcats, his emotions pierced unhealthy levels
"I have slept four hours in two days," he said. "I couldn't eat. I've taken more stomach pills, in four days they might have to pump my stomach. I haven't left my house. I'm embarrassed to stop and get coffee."
Since Presbyterian's Khalid Mutakabbir drained a 3-pointer from the wing to bury Cincinnati's early-season Top 25 ranking, Cronin restored the basic fundamentals of his program. To avoid further embarrassment, he instituted changes promised Saturday night.
His veterans were playing through mistakes. No more. Players who can't pass to the open man will sit and watch. Those loafing for even a half of second will take a seat. The bench will once again be used as a motivational weapon.
"I wrote out rules to our program: No. 1 winning is extremely hard at this level no matter who you play," Cronin said. "You better be ready to play with your heart and you better hustle or you do not get to play. I didn't' think I had to address this with my older players."
Clearly, somewhere between the rankings and press clippings, the mode of transportation used ascending to the top went missing. That was evident for the 10 days prior to the loss against the Blue Hose when even Cashmere Wright admitted he saw a letdown coming.
"I didn't think it would be that game," Wright said. "You can tell in practice we were getting too full of ourselves and we weren't practicing as hard as we did when we first started."
That was not the case the last two days. Partially because of the red-hot rage splattered across the inside of Fifth Third Arena from their embarrassed head coach. And partially because the lesson that comes from watching a team ranked 204 in the RPI last year celebrate on the C-paw is difficult to erase.
The relentless defense that suffocated Northwest Louisiana during the 71-43 victory proved Saturday wasn't far from the mind.
"I don't think it takes a genius to see that is the best we have played all year," Cronin said.
In the second half, the situation looked eerily similar. Two days after watching a 15-point lead with 10 minutes remaining spiral into the biggest upset loss in Mick Cronin's tenure, there the Bearcats were again. This time, they led by 14 with 11:44 left.
The reaction was as decisively different as the final score. UC ripped off a 16-2 run.
Sean Kilpatrick hustled his way for a steal and outlet pass. Justin Jackson stepped into the lane for a charge. Five possessions concluded with UC attacking the basket and moving to the free throw line. Ge'Lawn Guyn provided a rare bench contribution two days after the starting five scored all 54 points.
Hustle, charges, free throws, bench points: all new concepts to anybody who witnessed the previous three halves of UC basketball.
"Our defense was constant all night and our attitude was great all night," Cronin said.
The key will be sustaining the attitude going forward. That begins with the most underrated test of the season in a Marshall team that will be among the best in Conference-USA.
Four days and a holiday stand between now and Friday. For Cronin, it allows a much needed breather from 48 hours from hell. The ship that hit the iceberg has temporarily contained the flooding and returned to course. But, as anybody who felt the invincibility sucked out of the season Saturday night can attest, a lot can change in 40 minutes.
For now, by rejuvenating the effort and attitude expected within the program, crisis management enjoyed a successful first step.
"It is not about money and prestige, man," Cronin said. "You got to have pride. We have worked very hard to build that here. Some things are unacceptable, now. The loss the other night is unacceptable. Yesterday and today they were fun to coach. And for a while there we weren't. For about 10 days we were not fun to coach. This happens to everybody now. They start thinking you are just going to win. You are not just going to win."