Cincinnati created 19 turnovers, hit 12 3-pointers and led by Cashmere Wright showed off a renewed commitment to defense in order to rout Villanova for a critical victory Tuesday night.
[Game Highlights: UC 68, Villanova 50]
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CINCINNATI -- Only minutes into the game, Cashmere Wright wasted little time proving a point --- to his teammates, to his coach, to his fans, to his critics, to Villanova, to himself.
Diving and sliding across the floor after a loose ball at the feet of a Wildcats ball-handler, he cast aside concerns of an ailing knee and bum shoulder. Only the heart would matter on Tuesday.
The early dive wouldn't be the last time he'd chestbump the logos in the 68-50 win against the Wildcats. He wiped out villages of dust mites and set up shop in their former living rooms. On a night defense and determination returned to the dialect of the Bearcats, the man teammates are supposed to be helping through frustrating injuries set the standard for intensity necessary to capture a critical conference victory.
"Our captain right here, he led us through everything," said Sean Kilpatrick glancing to his good friend seated next to him at the postgame podium. "We attacked the ball today on defense. We did a lot of trapping and made a lot of rotations. Everyone was active. We came into this game not even thinking about offense. Everyone just came in with a defensive mindset."
For Wright, this meant returning to the scrambling, diving demeanor which served as the cornerstone of late-season surges the last two seasons. He illustrated the point to perfection racking up 14 deflections, a number Mick Cronin says he can't remember another player reaching. The team totaled 46, near a season-high.
After being forced to watch every dribble of the Pittsburgh game in a meeting Cronin called "not very pleasant," he told his team they hadn't dove on the floor for a ball in the last four games. The coach admitted he might have exaggerated a bit, but the message clearly resonated.
"If we are not the hungrier team how are we supposed to win?" Wright said of Cronin's message. "That's our staple, that's what we are known by, playing hard defense and being the first one to the ground to come up with the ball. I feel like personally, me, (Kilpatrick) and JaQuon (Parker), the guards, we got to set an example. We got to be the first ones to show the people on the bench if you come in the game nothing should change. If we are on the floor, you should be on the floor."
Over the course of the last week week critics bemoaned each time Cronin referenced defense, rather than the struggling offense, to be the difference in the sumo wrestling matches the last few games devolved into. Yet, over the last two years nobody would classify the UC offense as a work of art. Around Fifth Third Arena, the calculation worked like a proven algorithm: shoot more shots, score more points. Defense equals offense.
Tough to argue with a 21-7 advantage in points off turnovers, 19 turnovers created, six more shots attempted and the widest margin of victory since Maryland-Eastern Shore. Tuesday night, UC blew dust off the old thesis for a throwback win it sorely needed if it wants to throw back to the postseason success of the last two seasons.
"Defense is the answer, deflections are the answer, loose balls are the answer and playing for your teammates with some heart and some pride is the answer," Cronin said. "Fortunately, I have some winners in the locker room playing hurt and diving all over the floor."
This result came in a three-pronged solution, part UC hustle, part Villanova's continued vulnerability to turnovers and part Cronin's calculated scheme change.
Seeking to focus a team tied for last in steal percentage in Big East play, he changed philosophy deciding to trap every pick and roll. He accustomed the philosophy to placing blinkers on an unfocused horse, forces him up in the bridle and fixated forward. For UC, trapping the pick and roll forced aggression and attacking of the basketball.
"Makes you play harder," Cronin said. "That was an adjustment we tried to make to force our guys to get up and be more aggressive instead of just worrying about playing sound defense and scouting report defense. It really helped us. They bought into it, though. It doesn't work if the kids don't play as hard as they played. They played unbelievably hard."
Enter Wright, who finished the game tied with David "Puffy" Kennedy for the all-time school steals record at 189. He finished with 11 points, four assists, three steals, two rebounds and zero turnovers. The shot continues to be a work in progress after a 3 for 14 night, but he says he's close to fully healthy from his knee sprain and the shot is beginning to feel right again.
To be fair, optimism flows better when 12 of 25 triples find the bottom of the net. The truth for this team all year will be if the deep ball drops along with defensive players to the floor, the Bearcats belong among the Big East elite. They looked like that team against the Wildcats. The challenge for Cronin entering a brutal stretch of five consecutive games against the top teams in the conference will be sustaining.
Yet, combining health with heart on the floor, coupling belief with relief were understandable inside the home locker room.
"We lost that mental aspect of being the one that's going to get everybody," Wright said. "We fell back and people started chasing us. Then we started realizing people started giving us their best shot. When you are ranked higher than other teams they come out and give you they best shot. And we were just taking it. Instead of giving it back to them we were just taking it and hoping we come up with a win at the end of the game."
No question, UC delivered the blow Tuesday. The 178-pound kid from Georgia with a bad shoulder and two bad knees led the way, one dive at a time.
"That's what people don't understand," Cronin said. "His value to our team cannot be measured on the stat sheet."
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