In the aftermath of a disappointing loss to Pittsburgh, Mick Cronin and the Bearcats focused on toughness rather than a struggling offense in attempting to dig out of a recent funk.
CINCINNATI -- As the Bearcats worked the ball inside and outside the Pittsburgh zone defense, it eventually kicked out to Sean Kilpatrick standing in his favorite spot in the corner, the defender out of position.
From a spot where he's buried countless 3s during his career at a higher percentage than any spot on the floor hit the rim and bounced into a mob of Panthers.
A possession later, movement inside created a kick out to Cashmere Wright standing at the top of the key, a spot where he's been most comfortable shooting during a season where he knocking down 40 percent from deep.
It slipped in and out.
More triples would follow, some contested, most not. Most were of the high percentage variety into the wheelhouse of this team's best players in positions where they've made a career burying during NCAA tournament runs.
Following the 62-52 loss to Pittsburgh during which UC didn't manage a field goal in the final 9:21 of regulation, walking out of Fifth Third Arena in a frustrated fury muddling about how the offense stinks would be a cop out and lack a deeper introspection.
The Bearcats offense created open shots, maybe as many as they have in weeks. On this night, in the second half, they didn't fall. That happens. Nobody wants it to happen and certainly not in the final minutes of a critical conference game leaving UC (18-6, 6-5) at a crossroads one month from Selection Sunday. Yet, an offense under scrutiny will take undue criticism in the aftermath of Saturday night.
Clearly, Mick Cronin wouldn't buy bad offense theories during a press conference that amounted to the most frustrated eight minutes and 25 seconds we've seen of him this season.
"You can sit there and say, boy Cash and SK had some wide open looks when they went zone," Cronin said. "Yeah, they did. But where I come from you have to win when you don't make shots. Right now we are not tough enough to beat a good team."
Winning without making shots comes as easy as not sticking out in a red shirt among the whiteout crowd. Yet, going the first 15 minutes of the second half without an offensive rebound while so many were available sent Cronin into a speech on his team's need to find a way to finish the job.
Kelvin Gaines, David Nyarsuk and Chiekh Mbodj combined for one offensive rebound among 36 missed shots.
"You got to be tough enough to beat a good team, do whatever it takes," Cronin said. "There's a difference between giving effort and giving the effort required to win the game. Tonight when we weren't making shots the effort required to win the game was for our five man to get a rebound. The effort required was to be perfect on defense. Our effort wasn't good enough to win. That's all I'm interested in."
Certainly, the devil's advocate will shrug at toughness and point to the numbers. And rest assured they are disappointing for UC.
The Bearcats finished Saturday 4 of 25 from 3-point range. They missed their final 14 shots. Kilpatrick went 0 for 7 after halftime following one his most efficient halves of the season to open the game.
Cashmere Wright continues to struggle with his shot since the injury. After weeks spent as the best player on the court every time he took the floor, he's hit just 6 of 35 from 3-point range (17 percent) since coming back. This from a player who was knocking them down at a 46 percent clip.
"Let's just be honest, guys, the kid is giving everything he's got," Cronin said. "He's playing hurt, it's obviously affecting his game."
His struggles filter down to the rest of the team and UC certainly must find a way to convert under the current circumstances. A common misunderstanding would be toughness revolving only around defense. Quite the contrary. A significant part of developing toughness means finishing around the rim and fighting for rebounds, which Cronin focused on after the game.
To contend the offense is a broken mess would mean only looking at the box score and not the film.
"I think our offense was fine today, we just had a lot of defensive breakdowns," Kilpatrick said. "We are sharing the ball, that is all that matters."
February may be the shortest month, but means the most in terms of momentum. Over the past two seasons, the Bearcats found a way to fight out of a funk as the outside tossed dirt on them. Even sitting on a podium five feet removed from the UC backdrop Saturday night, Kilpatrick sounded like a player with his back pressed against directly against the wall.
"There's a lot of teams around the country that tends to fold ... that can't be the case at all," Kilpatrick said. "We got to want it more than the other team and today that didn't happen. We know what we are capable of and we know if we continue to keep playing the way we played the last two games it won't be good. We will get out the trench."
Little time exists for digging. Villanova (15-9, 6-5) and Georgetown (17-4, 7-3) arrive in Clifton for two games in five days and the relentlessness of the Big East shows up like a bullying post move from Steven Adams.
As Cronin referenced before making his final statement of the night and leaving, worrying about wide open misses would be a waste of time. The law of averages will center themselves. Worrying about converting the difficult buckets around the basket and finding ways to claw out victories remain a better use of time.
"You go to find a way to win," Cronin said. "And the answer is to toughen up and get the job done. So, obviously, I got work to do."
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