A huge night for Bearcats basketball boils down to three seniors leading the nation in toughness and showing the type of fortitude that wins games in March.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Russ Smith pulled up from 25 feet with the game tied and time running down on the shot clock to remind everyone why he earned the name Russdiculous.
Suddenly, 22,264 who spent the first 35 minutes berating the officials erupted in the latest attempt to blow the exclamation point off the KFC Yum! Center.
The defending national champions in their own house, the worldwide leader allowing the entire nation to watch, all momentum carrying them like a tidal wave from down 17 to up three in the same half. No. 12 Louisville took the floor with a deafening crowd, college basketball's seventh-ranked defense and both hands square around the throat of their biggest rivals.
Average teams don't recover for weeks. Good teams don't score again.
Even great teams mostly tip their cap and learn from the film. Few moments of that intimidation level exist across college basketball.
Yet, this Bearcats team, followed during every step of their 12-game win streak by "yeah, but," wheeled out three seniors and a toughness impossible to gauge in recruiting stars or highlight videos.
They accomplished the improbable. They found a way.
How did they do it? Sounds complicated, but for Mick Cronin, is explained simply.
"I made sure Justin, SK and Titus were in the game," he said.
Such resiliency in leadership speaks more than a single win against a rival, 20-2 record or two-game advantage in The American standings. It speaks to a team capable of facing any opponent, any obstacle, any atmosphere and making the plays the other side isn't willing or able to convert.
It speaks to a team built for March.
"I got the best three senior leaders in the country. Period," Mick Cronin said. "They may not be the best three players -- Kansas, Kentucky have three lottery picks each -- but I wouldn't trade my guys for the world.
"You can't understand the fortitude of Titus, Jack and SK," Cronin said. "That's why we have the record we have."
After Thursday, the college basketball universe may be starting to get the point.
Time and again, the Bearcats accepted brutal punches by the Cardinals and steadied the ship. The first came after a 7-0 Louisville run to close the first half placed pressure on UC coming out of the break.
Kilpatrick hit a 3 to start a run of 16 points in the first six possessions of the half.
When Louisville broke out the Montrezl Harrell dunk parade a 14-0 run saw the Bearcats unravel like has happened many times before against Louisville. Last year UC committed 21 turnovers, lost composure and it buried them into a blowout.
Instead, Kilpatrick entered and immediately sent a message to his team:
"I said, you know what, everybody has to calm down because if you come into this type of environment and try to speed up with them then everything goes out of hand."
His message backed up with two free threes and a collection of backdoor cuts and drives to keep pace as the Cardinals heated up from deep.
Then Russdiculous happened.
And Justin Jackson, who spent much of the night quietly affecting the game with defense offered three game-defining plays. He forced in for an acrobatic putback of a missed layup, altered a Smith layup on the other end then when Harrell backed him into the post, Jackson reached around for a strip and turnover that allowed Kilpatrick back to the line.
Kilpatrick set the tone with a one-handed tomahawk jam in the opening minutes slammed with an emphatic message that these Bearcats would dictate the terms. Then he finished them off with finesse burying free throw 11 of 11 on the game -- one might have hit the rim.
Those are winning plays made by winning players. Those projecting the possibility of these Bearcats need to push the ceiling a little higher after witnessing what was accomplished Thursday night.
Cronin would say his team expected to win Thursday. Knowing their confidence level, he's not lying. But this win could only be considered special. The same descriptor belongs on this team. After Cincinnati 69, Louisville 66, we should discuss the possibility special could also describe their March run.
"I have been saying it this season," he said. "Those guys play hard, they're tough, they care about winning. I am just enjoying the ride with those guys."
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