Cincinnati survived a wild second-half surge by Vincent Council in a win that tested their fortitude, but taught a valuable lesson in what will be important over the critical stretch to close the season.
CINCINNATI - Vincent Council pulled up the left wing and buried a 3-pointer. He pulled up from the right wing drained another. From seemingly every other corner of Fifth Third Arena during the first 12 minutes of the second half, Council turned pressure into points.
"He was making some unbelievable stuff," Sean Kilpatrick said.
And for a period of about 30 minutes Wednesday night, his theatrics in almost single-handedly erasing the majoirty of a 24-point second-half deficit, the Providence senior proceeded to scare the Blue Hose out of the UC fan base.
On most nights in the Big East, even against the league's cellar-dweller, wins don't come without drama. The latest 81-66 victory for the Bearcats followed suit.
In the end, the good far outweighed the bad and UC exited with its must-win in tow. At this point in time, during step one in this season defining six-game dash to The Dance, aesthetics and skipped heartbeats mean nothing.
"Any double figure win in the Big East is a great win," Mick Cronin said. "Only score that matters is the final score. That is all that matters."
Such will be the case from this point forward. The days of teaching points and valiant effort dissolved with that 12-point lead at Marquette. A fresh season of urgency began Wednesday against the Friars. While the attitude and intensity didn't appear different for Cronin, the players noticed. They feel the warm winds of March beginning to blow through campus. This time of year and situation altered the mindset.
"It's more of in the locker room and on the court just try to help each other stay focused on what we are trying to do," said Yancy Gates, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. "Finish strong down the stretch so we can get into the tournament where we want to be. It's more of everybody, a group thing, trying to make sure everybody is focused."
Few moments will test that focus like the second half did Wednesday.
Once Gerard Coleman slammed a two-handed dunk down on a fast break with 4:26 remaining to conclude a 29-12 run by the Friars, UC stared down a seven-point lead and the possibility of a collapse that would play in their memories for years to come.
Timeouts were called. Strategy was relayed. In the first of what will be many tense moments over the next month, the Bearcats persevered. It was far from perfect, but grabbing 18 of 34 offensive rebounds and holding the Friars to 25 first-half points was enough to leave no doubt on a 15-point win.
The path to 18-8, 8-5 reiterated a message Cronin relayed following the blowout at Marquette.
"Before (Providence) made the run I told guys you got to quit looking at the scoreboard and just play," Cronin said. "That was our problem against Marquette. We are worried about blowing a 12-point lead, it doesn't matter. People say, 'You are up 12.' Well, so what? I averaged 30 a game in eighth grade. Nobody cares. I am the same height, same weight and no hair now. It doesn't matter. You got to show toughness and keep playing."
These days, in Clifton, that means finding a way to make stops.
Once Council cooled, the Bearcats did halt the madness. But those moments where the lead was in question reset a reality of what confronts this team. What seems like decades ago, in November, this same general consensus existed. UC must find a way to replace the defense lost to graduation if they plan to return to the NCAA Tournament.
They had to uncover the suffocation of Rashad Bishop and recreate the tenacity of Larry Davis and Darnell Wilks.
Eighteen wins, eight losses, four suspensions and one brawl later, those preseason words resurfaced truer than ever.
"It's taken a long time for me to be right, but I told you early in the year because of loss of our seniors that played defense at this level for four years that that's where we would be hurt the most," Cronin said. "Ultimately, we are a much better offensive team. Defensively, we are still trying to batten down the hatches. That is going to decide our fate."
Thanks to a few missed shots and converted free throws, there was enough defense to put UC a step closer to its desired final position.
In the wee hours of Wednesday night and Thursday morning, as the tension of the Council crusade dissipated, none of those details mattered much anymore. Only the final score did. One down, five to go.