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Cheikh Mbodj enjoys Senior Day for the ages

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Cheikh Mbodj played one of the best games of his UC career including a key block toward the end of regulation in a critical overtime win against USF. All this with his parents in town from Senegal watching him play basketball live for the first time in six years. 

CINCINNATI - Cheikh Mbodj last saw his parents two years ago. 

The last time his mother and father watched him play a basketball game in person came six years ago when he still lived in his native Senegal. 

They attempt to keep up with Mbodj, UC's 25-year-old starting center, either through Internet streams or the occasional online highlight. Living across the world makes following Big East basketball a challenging task. 

That all changed Saturday. 

For his final home game, Mbodj's parents, Asta Khaly Welle and Ousmane Mbodj, traveled 4,370 miles on a nine-hour flight from Dakar, Senegal to see their son honored for his career at UC. After six long years, they would finally see their boy play again in person. 

Little could either have imagined they'd witness him play the game of his life. And little could anyone have thought Cheikh Mbodj would be responsible for saving the possibility of a demoralizing home defeat to USF placing UC on the Big Dance bubble. 

Yet, in UC's 61-53 comeback victory, he scored eight points with nine rebounds and three critical blocks - all but one bucket of which came in the second half and overtime. Those were the most points and rebounds he's collected since January. 

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"He doesn't give us nine and eight, we don't win this game," Mick Cronin said. "I can tell you one thing about Cheikh, he can block shots and he's a great kid."

In the world of basketball and life, people don't come much nicer than Mbodj. Polite, respectful, conscientious and as quality a representative of the University of Cincinnati as Cronin could hope for. He'd love to have seen Mbodj become a more effective scorer in this final season and wonders if he pushes him too hard attempting to make it happen. 

That said, players like this, people like this, deserve their moment. For Mbodj to soak up his with his parents watching him play live for the first time in six years redefines special Senior Day experiences. 

"Man, it was a great feeling," Mbodj said. "I haven't seen them in so long. At first it was a surprise (they were coming), but when people told me I was really happy."

Dressed head-to-toe in native garb, they flanked Mbodj walking to the center of Fifth Third Arena as a crowd of 11,572 stood with an ovation for the 6-foot-10 center. Had the day ended there, all three would look back fondly on a special day worth remembering for the rest of their lives. Only, Mbodj provided a day they'll never forget. It, incredibly, came in what appeared could be the darkest moment of the season. 

Trailing by eight points with 3:30 left, Mbodj along with fellow seniors JaQuon Parker and Cashmere Wright, helped trim the deficit to one possession. From there, Mbodj grabbed an offensive rebound from a missed Parker jump shot and proceeded to bury both free throws to pull within one. 

On the ensuing possession, USF point guard Anthony Collins drove the lane off a switch attempting to break down Mbodj. The center was able to extend and block the shot with all while palming it to smother the ball into his hand for a turnover. 

The block was as beastly as it was game-saving. 

"I just realized he was going to try to attack me since there was a size difference," Mbodj said. "I just tried to play smarter and try to use my left hand with his right hand. I just felt the ball so I just grabbed it."

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Sean Kilpatrick had seen that show before. 

"He gets blocks like that in practice," said Kilpatrick, who scored 13 points. "He's so much longer than everybody his size difference on a defender is crazy because he can cover a lot of ground. Not only that he has the mobility to move with everyone in this league."

The show continued in overtime with Mbodj hitting four straight free throws, including two he earned pulling down a board off a missed Parker free throw. 

In a season where numerous close losses were results of singular plays not made, Mbodj delivered them Saturday. 

"There's a fine line between winning and losing and it's not easy to win games particularly in this league when every game is a death match," Cronin said. "Those kinds of plays separate who wins and who losses games."

In this case, it may have separated who plays in the NCAA tournament and who doesn't. With a loss, the Bearcats would have fallen squarely onto the bubble in the eyes of most experts. Instead, they probably should be in, Cronin admitted postgame. "Probably being the key word because you never know," he said.

Maybe the stories of how Mbodj played will be lost in translation when his parents return to Senegal on Tuesday and begin bragging on their son. Friends might not understand the importance of the game or even the game itself. 

None of that will matter to Cheikh. 

An ear-to-ear grin shyly flashed across his face just talking about his week leading up to the game spent hanging out with his parents, proudly showing them his life in the United States. Had the week ended at that, surely, Mbodj would look fondly back at the time as a memorable experience. 

Yet, Mbodj transformed this one into a day his family will never forget. One could think the presence of Mbodj's parents inspired his defining game as a Bearcat. Anybody who knows Mbodj and how much he cares about his teammates and his effort, though, knows that's nearly impossible. Giving maximum effort has never been an issue. 

"I just try to get on the floor and help my teammates win ballgames,"  he said. "I'll always do that. No matter who is out there watching us."

The fact his parents were watching Saturday allowed an even more remarkable day. One worth waiting six years for.

I want to hear from you. Shoot any questions, comments and thoughts on Cheikh Mbodj to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com and hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr.

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