For three years Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright have been at the forefront of UC's return to national relevance, now these two friends hope to be at the centerpiece of one unforgettable final chapter. (photo: Cincinnati Enquirer)
CINCINNATI - Reality struck Sean Kilpatrick the moment he saw Cashmere Wright walk to center court at Fifth Third Arena with his family on Senior Day.
The junior from New York couldn't help it. He began to tear up.
Much of his emotional moment came in realizing the tumultuous, painful path Wright endured to reach this final chapter. Another underlying understanding tagged along that day. As much as this would be the final home game for Wright, JaQuon Parker, Cheikh Mbodj and Alex Eppensteiner, this would be the final home game for Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright to play together.
This duo stood at the forefront of a movement that changed the face of UC basketball. Over the course of three seasons, they willed this program out of the dark, irrelevant corner of the college basketball landscape and into the brightest stages the game offers.
In 103 games played together they amassed 2,507 points, 72 wins against 31 losses, three NCAA tournament victories and a spot in the Big East tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden.
They've redefined the prism through which the program is viewed. They've done so not only as the team's premier players on the court, but close friends off it.
Decades from now they may better remember the moments away from basketball best, as so many alumni of the program do. They'll recall their jokes in the locker room, late nights at Waffle House or football Sundays at Hooters.
Yet, as the swan song of this rejuvenating basketball era commences Friday in Philadelphia, these two would love nothing more than write the definitive final chapter of their friendship between the lines.
"Actually, we were talking about that in the training room the other day," Kilpatrick said. "Me and him came a long way. We played a lot of games, a lot of minutes together. It's been a ride. That's something we are going to miss, but I know that he wants to go out with a bang and that's something I am going to try and help him do."
Wright, as the fifth-year senior, imparts a wise, introspective tone while discussing their careers - past, present and future. In many ways he takes on the role of older brother, even though he's actually born three days after Kilpatrick in January 1990.
When describing his backcourt partner, Wright begins and ends with an appreciation of his drive and focus.
"He's that whole other beast," Wright said of the team's leading scorer who averages 16.9 points per game. "He's that person who shows you how to put in the work and you see him put in the work and you see him getting better and you realize it. He's really outgoing, he wants the best for him but also pulls everyone alongside him with him."
On the contrary comes Wright, with his high-pitched laugh and optimistic personality. Neither of these two could have imagined how much this optimism would be necessary during a season they believed destined for elite status. Expectations altered under the pressure of the late-season losing streaks and a team as worrisome as any Mick Cronin can remember needed a fixture to keep their spirits from crumbling.
Enter Wright, with one good knee, one good shoulder and one important leadership skill set.
"One of the funniest, motivated, high-spirit guys you'll ever meet," Kilpatrick said. "Even if right after a loss and everyone is sitting here and down and everything about it, the whole room will be quiet and you'll just hear Cash, 'C'mon y'all, we all right, we all right!'"
This attitude didn't form overnight and didn't necessarily come from his youth, he learned the most from watching senior Deonta Vaughn's final season when the Bearcats finished with a disappointing trip to the NIT. Vaughn didn't post the numbers he hoped for in his final year and the external pressures were as much responsible as any defensive strategies.
"We were ranked that year," Wright said. "We came back and we lost and we made the NIT, I realized one thing with Deonta, I was looking at him he let that whole season just stress him out. When it got toward the end he was so stressed out he couldn't even help us. Me seeing that, I'm like I can't even let that happen to me."
From that moment forward, enjoying the opportunity trumped all other aspects. Combining Kilpatrick's work ethic and focus with Wright's light-hearted reality check created the culture to lift the team to new heights.
On the court, that means a look or single comment to bring the best out of each other. When you play together more than 100 games, timeouts and huddles to impart urgency aren't needed.
"He'd be the first person I look at if we are in the game and got a tough stretch going on, or going to have a tough stretch," Wright said. "He'd be the first person I'd look at, like, 'C'mon now.' He'll look at me and say, 'C'mon now, help me, do what you got to do.' We look at each other first and say, 'It's time you start playing.'"
Playing will look much different next year with Wright bound for the next level of basketball and Kilpatrick with one year of eligibility remaining. SK bellowed a laugh thinking about the amount of defensive pressure he would see returning for his final season at UC without Wright and other graduating seniors.
"I thought I'd seen double teams this year," he said. "Imagine next year."
For two players so synonomous with each other, imagining next year seems impossible to envision one without the other. Along with Parker, his running mates will be gone. So, the question of next year does still hang in the balance. Kilpatrick will have a decision to make whether to move on to a professional career or return to UC.
It's maybe the only topic these two friends don't delve deep into.
"He's got so many people asking him so many questions, that's the last thing I want to talk to him about," Wright said. "I just tell him do what is best for you and make the decision that you are going to live with and you are going to be OK with. Either decision you make, I'm fine, I'm here with you, but make the decision because of you. That's all I tell him about next year."
"It will be different," Kilpatrick said. "But then again now it will be their chance to sit there and watch me - if things did pan out the way it was -- watch me basically try to carry a team and try to sit here and really keep growing as a player."
All thought of next year ends there. The final moments of any relationship are cherished more than any others. Perspective officially hit these two. Now, extracting one final run together would mean the ultimate celebration of their basketball bond. And a symbolic reflection of a characteristic which in many ways defined them and this three-year rise to relevancy.
"We are a group that really likes proving a lot of people wrong," Kilpatrick said. "That's something that got us this far because we've always had that chip on our shoulder. We've always wanted to really sit here and prove doubters wrong. It would mean the most, especially with the ups and downs we did have. If we could make this run and on top of that get to Atlanta for Cash, that would meant he most."
It might mean the most, but wouldn't mean the conclusion. Not for these two.
"It's part of growing up, like I tell him, that's why they made phones," Wright said. "But right now everyone is grown, we all got kids. Everyone's got to do what's best for their families.
"Friendships don't end, brotherships don't end. Only thing that's going to be different is we won't be playing together in basketball."
Adult life and decisions hold on the immediate horizon for these 23-year-olds, but prolonging these final moments on the court together would make for a fitting, unforgettable finale.
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