Cincinnati hoped to prove it could play with the best the conference had to offer, the lessons learned in falling short were difficult to stomach.
CINCINNATI - The Cincinnati Bearcats weren't the first team to experience the extra gear of the No. 3 Syracuse Orange. Rest assured, they won't be the last.
A team running All-Americans in and out like the game is sponsored by McDonald's don't need much of an opening to exploit opponents. They didn't on the path to 20 consecutive wins and still don't two days after one loss.
Boeheim called the atmosphere at Fifth Third Arena a normal night for
his team. He'd be right. Sellouts follow his bunch like shadows. But
this was no normal night for UC. Their first Big Monday game since
joining the league and first house holding 13,176 of the year proved
Games like Monday require an extra level of precision. An extra level of execution. An extra level of focus. The Orange showed it off, as they have 21 of 22 times this season. UC didn't.
There's no shame in that fact. This conference, more precisely, this country is filled with teams whose elevators don't advance to the Syracuse penthouse.
Feelings of frustration wafting from the home locker room Monday didn't originate at the fact UC lost, rather the manner of the failure.
Mick Cronin's normally loquacious, analytical postgame press conference, transformed into terse venting. Not because he felt his team fell victim to being out-athleted, rather because they collapsed mentally.
"As a coach you have preparation and there are controllables," Cronin said. "Scoop (Jardine) or Kris Joseph making a tough one-on-one shot is not a controllable. Giving up layups on blown assignments because your head is somewhere else because you missed a shot or they made a tough shot or you're a little tired or I don't know why, that is inexcusable."
The decisive 19-6 run by Syracuse may have been sparked by back-to-back 3-pointers from Jardine and Brandon Triche, but it survived due to guards driving and cutting for layups. Five of them, to be exact. At the end of the day, 36 points in the paint stuck out like the three orange shirts in the all-white student section.
"We gave this game away, the guards, by letting them get back door," Cashmere Wright said.
Shooting 4 of 20 from 3-point range after a blazing four of five start, didn't help. Nor did missing six of nine free throws. Turning it over as many times in the first half (9) as they had during any Big East game this season provided a confusing, matchup-zone nightmare.
The frustration eventually led to the breakdowns. That's how the game works against the Orange. It did again Monday night.
"Got to give them credit, but you got to be better than that," Cronin said.
Bearcats thought they were.
They learned the hard way over this brutal three-game stretch, as far as they've risen over the last seven weeks, they're still staring up at the peak of the mountain.
"We learned as long as we come out with our mental state, that's the big key for us," Yancy Gates said. "We got talented players on our team that can score, that can play D. We got to keep the same focus throughout the whole game and not let other teams runs, which we did a couple times during the stretch, not let other teams runs crack our spirit."
The same message Gates applied to the inner-workings of games now applies to the big picture of his team's season. West Virginia felt like a win. Sitting up 42-40 with under 10 minutes left Monday night with 13,176 creating a deafening roar felt like one as well.
Reflecting on all the effort and positive plays of the last 85 minutes resulted in nothing.
"Just don't close out," Gates said. "Frustrating. We felt like we gave a couple games away."
As Gates said, they can't let that crack their spirit. Rutgers awaits. As do nine more games which will decide whether or not they make the NCAA tournament. Lucky for UC, none of them are against Syracuse.
Bottom line, the entire three-game stretch must be a learning experience. Even if that realization didn't seem easy to stomach in the immediate aftermath of 60-53.
"I learned that we lost our last two games and I'm not happy," Cronin said. "If we don't get better, we are going to lose Saturday."