The Bearcats defense created enough offense to grab a desperately needed 61-56 win against UConn on Saturday and its effectiveness will determine how March plays out for UC despite any discussion of offense.
Fittingly, a week overflowing with emotion and tension, concern and frustration, boiled down to a deflection and a forced turnover.
While the world surrounding UC focuses on an inefficient offense, all those inside the Bearcats locker room hold tunnel vision on one concept: defense.
They must. It's how they win. Has been for months.
"That's who we got to be," Mick Cronin said.
The topic of discussion with the Bearcats constantly revolves around the offense. When Cronin merely mentions his defense the Twitteratti react as if he openly supported North Korea bubbling up nuclear weapons.
Bottom line: When this team makes runs, more importantly, when this team wins games, the defense always stands at the source. Always.
"Our defense picked up today," Cronin said. "Our effort and our energy was much better. That was probably the difference in the game since our offense -- other than not turning the ball over -- continued to struggle."
Cronin could drop the probably out of that last sentence. Saturday, they reeled off a 21-1 advantage in points off turnovers. When analyzing Cincinnati 61, Connecticut 56, no need to look further. When analyzing Bearcats wins post-Cash injury, the same script plays out..
Consider, in their five victories they've outscored opponents 93-46 in points off turnovers. In their six losses, they've been outscored 77-40.
- Wins (UC points off turnover/Opponent points off turnovers)
- Uconn: 21/1
- Villanova: 21/7
- Seton Hall: 14/17
- Rutgers: 18/11
- Marquette: 19/10
- TOTAL: 93/46
- ND: 7/8
- Uconn: 6/17
- Georgetown: 7/10
- Pitt: 8/15
- Providence: 10/17
- Syracuse: 2/10
- TOTAL: 40/77
The victory over Seton Hall represents the only game in that stretch where the result went a different direction than the points off turnovers battle.
For better, worse or indifferent, defense defines this team.
At face value, the final nine minutes Saturday looked eerily similar to six losses from the last three weeks. The Bearcats struggled to close, going without a field goal the final 7:04. Every possession turned the knuckles a lighter shade of white on the death grip UC held on the slimming lead.
The only difference was the Bearcats defense willed deflections and disruption, steals and stops, including twice in the decisive final two possessions. Ironically, concluding with an over-and-back call 10 days after the same decision doomed an overtime loss in Hartford.
"We've been having trouble closing out close games," Sean Kilpatrick said. "Today our main focus was just defense. We knew that down the stretch if it was going to be a close game ... you got to be able to not only get easy buckets, but defend.
Every team needs a signature in March, a footprint capable of bailing them out when the chips are down. It did so in the most critical of spots Saturday. During halftime, a three-week run where the Bearcats backs inched closer and closer to the tournament wall pressed them square against it.
The result was an inspirational - and incredibly comical - technical foul from Cronin sparking a 16-4 run. As much as any boiling point with officials, though, the run came from the defense allowing the offense to play on instinct and shoot without thinking.
JaQuon Parker trapped and scrapped to break Jermaine Sanders for a layup. Kilpatrick poked a pass out for a free bucket of his own. Meanwhile, fast break chaos helped Cashmere Wright forget about his 0-for-8 streak to start the game and bury back-to-back 3-pointers in rhythm.
"When you on the floor and see your coach get fired up like that, he's playing for you," Wright said. "It's like your father fighting for you so you have no choice but to fight for him."
They now exhale as their name drifts away from the dreaded bubble and by all accounts comfortably in the NCAA tournament, barring disaster.
Cronin referred to the anxiety and emotion as the same as any other week for him, he'd have "gone to law school" if he didn't expect stress. He worried about his players.
"Make no mistake about it," he said. "They knew they had to win."
The stress was as evident in all-business run through opening warmups as the reaction once inside the locker room with the desperately needed win in tow.
"I walked in the locker room and I just started staring at the ceiling, like, sheesh we needed this," Kilpatrick said. "About time we got one we actually needed.
"(The week) was a little draining, but when you have great coaches and you have great teammates when we are in the practice gym everyone's focus is on the same thing. We know things aren't always going to bounce our way and we know everyone isn't going to always be there behind us when things are going wrong. That's why we have each other. That's something we stuck with the whole year."
They have each other. And they have defense creating offense. It was enough Saturday and will be the primary weapon when the Big Dance comes calling.
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