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Winning at its worst leads UC toward its best

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Winning on a night when nothing went right meant more to UC than just another victory.

CINCINNATI - Somewhere, a tempo-free, number-crunching statistical analyst of college basketball tossed his pen at the computer screen.

What occurred at US Bank Arena on Thursday night defies numbers. It defies logic.

A team that lives by the 3-point shot died by it in shooting 7 of 30 from behind the arc.

They shot 28 percent from the field and missed 44 shots. They were outrebounded 46-37. Trailing 49-37 with under six minutes remaining, the Bearcats best player in Cashmere Wright had three points and one of the smallest teams in college basketball shrunk by four inches as 6-foot-5 freshman Jermaine Sanders was forced to play center.

The offense was stagnant. The bench didn't score a point.

Cincinnati lost almost every major statistical category.

Yet, when the final horn sounded, the score shown a statistical improbability: UC 56, Oklahoma 55.

Sitting at the press conference after the game, Mick Cronin could only say what everyone was thinking.

"How did we win is what I am really wondering right now," he said.

Sometimes in the new age of college basketball we become so caught up with stats and odds, percentages and probabilities, the churning of calculations cloud the bigger picture.

How did the Bearcats win Thursday night? The answer requires putting down the stat sheet and throwing away the box score.

Heart. Grit. Will.

No more. No less.

"That's what UC basketball is about," Sean Kilpatrick said. "We grind out a win any way we can. We scrap."

To win a game when absolutely nothing goes right means more than one slash in the win column. When a team that couldn't miss from 3-point range the last four games does nothing but clang and a group without a center loses its only two forwards, but finds a way, the mentality changes.

As has been the theme with this team all year, from what appeared to be a dark hour emerged a emboldening confidence.

"When all that happens and you still win it is a great feeling for your kids because as a coach you are always selling play hard and good things will happen," Cronin said. "When it actually comes to fruition it helps build belief with what you are trying to build up with your team."

There will be nights like this in the Big East as conference play begins Sunday. Most this ugly will end in defeat. But just knowing that on nights when the shots don't fall and breaks don't go your way, this team can find a way against all statistical reasoning to will a win.

Heart and hustle won't win the Big East title - refining an offense still learning how it should operate will be necessary for that. Yet, as was learned Thursday, heart and hustle will win you a few games you might not have deserved.

"Believe in each other and keep digging and keep fighting," Cronin said. "That's what you have to do in the Big East. That's just life in our conference. I just couldn't be more proud of the guys right now to be honest with you. Played nine minutes with five guards to finish the game and come from 10 down to win against a team with good players and a great coach."

It did so by following its leader in Wright.

On a night when many key players weren't good enough, Wright was bad. Entering the final minute of play he was 1 of 12 from the floor. He didn't just miss 3-pointers (0-4), he missed jumpers. He missed layups. At one point following another missed layup he shook his head and yelled out an almost primal scream while lining up to play defense.

Frustration set in. As did his support structure.

"I have great teammates," Wright said. "These people next to me kept talking in my ear telling me it is going to be all right. You just have to keep grinding and keep pushing and just make it through."

With under a minute left and trailing by two points, Cronin turned to Wright. The junior delivered with an and-1 in the lane that delivered the first lead of the second half.

Then, trailing by one, Cronin drew up another play for his point guard. Forget 1 for 12. Forget all the missed layups and the airballs. Cronin went to his leader with the same stubborn will to win his team showcased for the final six minutes of the game. Wright rewarded him with the game-winner.

"I told him down the stretch, you can't hang your head," Cronin said. "You are the leader of this team, the ball is going to be in your hands. And if we don't win tonight, I am not changing. We got 18 more. It's your team."

Even as the walls caved in on Wright and the Bearcats, the path to success didn't change. They stayed the course. And it's the reason they won.

"My shot wouldn't fall, I was getting there the whole game just missing the shots," Wright said. "My teammates said deep being aggressive and keep doing your thing and you are going to be all right."

And they were. Such was the lesson for this entire Bearcats team as they thrust forward into conference play. Believe in the philosophy, believe in yourself and believe you can win regardless of what the statistics might say.

Telling players to believe those words is easy. Making them understand it is harder. On Thursday, that lesson was driven home loud and clear.

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