UC endured a heart-breaking defeat against Louisville, but through the pain a positive picture of March shines through for the Bearcats.
CINCINNATI -- From the moment the Bearcats took the floor Saturday against Louisville, the day felt different. And not when they took the floor for opening tip. When the took the floor for warmups.
The student section caked in white and packing big heads stood shoulder to shoulder filling every inch 20 minutes before tipoff. The upper decks overflowed and roared at levels unheard in the five years I've been on this beat.
Sean Kilpatrick agreed with my ranking.
"No. 1," he said.
As UC bullied its way to a three-point lead, the waning moments trended to a coronation against arch-rival Louisville, booting them to the ACC with a final swift kick.
Only, with one hanging rainbow, Russ Smith grasped all the white-hot energy of Saturday afternoon and ripped it out of the UC basketball team.
Those moments leave a mark. They did in the immediate aftermath of a succinct, frustrated press conference from UC players and coach Mick Cronin.
Losing to Louisville in that fashion stings. It should. But sifting through the smoke and rubble of emotion a clearer picture of future emerges. The Bearcats are 24-4, 13-2 in the American Athletic Conference, tied for first with the Cardinals with the next game on the schedule beginning March Madness.
The Bearcats didn't play well Saturday. Justin Jackson fouled his way out of the first half, Cronin called the fact UC only trailed by three at the break without him a "modern miracle."
UC went 8:55 without scoring one point, nobody but Sean Kilpatrick topped eight points, they didn't score a single fast-break bucket and were owned 34-14 in the paint.
Yet, it took a helium-filled, Russdiculous buzzer-beater to bury the Bearcats.
While many story lines should evolve from Louisville 58, Cincinnati 57, concerns about the Bearcats' potential next month don't fall among them.
"I love (my guys) for how hard we play," Cronin said. "We just didn't play very well today. We didn't play very smart today. Even if we won we would have won because of our toughness."
The moral of my story of Saturday comes two-fold. First, maybe the biggest travesty of the breakup of the Big East from UC's perspective is officials of that level unable to control a game of this magnitude. It's a shame when two teams in the top 11 square off so many leave talking about the guys in stripes.
Second, these two sides must find a way to continue this rivalry going forward. How can it be better for either of these two schools that this rivalry ends? Take a look at the recent past between these two schools in both football and basketball. Thriller after thriller and passionate crowds in both arenas.
Logistics on both sides come into play, but if this rivalry takes a permanent hiatus it's not just a loss along the Ohio River, it's a sad defeat for all of college basketball.
We can delve into those topics around the watering holes Saturday night, but we won't talk about the Bearcats potential when it matters most in four weeks.
Concern is for those not paying attention beyond the box score.
UConn, Memphis and Rutgers remain on the schedule as UC races Louisville (22-4, 12-2) to the wire for a regular season American title. The Bearcats resume places them in the cone of probability for a top four seed.
Losing a February game when you didn't play well on a shot at the horn might make for a swift kick to the coffee table in the living room of a UC fan, but doesn't stub the toe of the big picture.
A win at UConn next Saturday or home throttling of spiraling Memphis back in Fifth Third will make this a distant memory.
For the moment, it stole the soul of a special atmosphere and ruined a Saturday afternoon. After the rainbow, however, the sun still shines.
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