Men's Basketball Falls 71-56 In American Championship
March 12, 2017

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By Bill Koch

HARTFORD - The University of Cincinnati Bearcats had been down this road before.

Back in December, playing against Marshall, the Thundering Herd came out making 3-point shots as if they were layups and jumped out to a 14-2 lead at Fifth Third Arena. But the Bearcats held steady, overcame the early blitzkrieg, and staged a late comeback to post a 93-91 overtime win.

A repeat of that process against 12th-ranked SMU was probably too much to expect.

No. 15 UC fell behind by nine points in the opening minutes against the Mustangs and never fully recovered in a 71-56 loss Sunday in the championship game of the American Athletic Conference tournament championship game at the XL Center, preventing the Bearcats from winning their first conference tournament title since they won the Conference USA championship in 2004.

"When you come out and miss the shots that we missed, especially in the first half, and a team comes out and makes a lot of hard shots against you - and they're good - you just can't come back," said UC coach Mick Cronin. "They're too good. You're not gonna get them to start throwing the ball away all the time. You're not just gonna jump over them and get every rebound. They're an elite team."

Not that the Bearcats packed it in after their slow start. They cut the SMU lead to three midway through the first half and appeared to be on the right path, but it didn't take long for the Mustangs to spread the lead back to nine.

That's how it was the entire game. Every time the Bearcats made a move to get back into it, SMU had an answer.

"As competitors, you don't think it's over at all," said UC forward Gary Clark. "When they're hitting shots, you've got to be able to come together as a unit to get stops."

As a result of the loss, UC will take a 29-5 record into its first-round NCAA Tournament game on Friday in Sacramento against the winner of Tuesday's play-in game in Dayton between Wake Forest and Kansas State. SMU, the AAC regular-season champion, improved to 30-4 with its 16th straight victory.

Jarron Cumberland led UC with 14 points off the bench, followed by Kyle Washington with 12, and Jacob Evans and Clark with 10 each. Clark also pulled down nine rebounds. Senior guard Kevin Johnson failed to score for the second straight game.

AAC Player of the Year Semi Ojeleye scored 14 points - 12 in the second half - to lead SMU. The Bearcats shot 31.1 percent from the field and made only four of 24 3-point shots. The Mustangs shot 50 percent made 10 of 19 from long range.

UC fell behind, 11-2, less than four minutes into the game. After Troy Caupain made a jump shot to tie the score at 2-2, UC missed 14 straight shots before Caupain made a layup with 12:38 to go. Cumberland followed with a 3-pointer that made it 14-9, even though the Bearcats had made only three of 17 shots.

Washington got into early foul trouble for the second straight game, picking up his second with 13:54 to go and taking a seat on the bench for the rest of the half, just as he did in UC's semifinal win over Connecticut on Saturday. The Bearcats finished the half with 24.2 percent shooting and made only one shot in 12 3-point attempts.

The Mustangs got a lift just before the end of the first half when Ben Emelogu made a buzzer-beater trey a few feet inside the mid-court line to give SMU a 32-23 halftime lead after Caupain had made one of two free throws with 3.7 seconds left to pull the Bearcats to within seven.

UC started the second half with two free throws by Clark, but it was not a sign of better things to come. During the next few minutes, SMU opened a 40-27 lead, its largest of the game to that point.

While the SMU offense was flourishing, its defense remained almost impenetrable, leaving the Bearcats searching, usually without success, for an open shot. SMU increased its lead to 17 with 12:52 remaining before Evans scored five straight points to get UC back within 12. But SMU was still firmly in  control after making four of its first five 3-point shots in the second half.

The Bearcats extended their run to 8-0 on a 3-point play by Clark to get within nine, but the Mustangs answered with a follow shot and two free throws by Ojeleye to put them back on top by 13.

"When they're executing on offense you've got to execute on defense to get stops," Clark said. "We were scrambling around and trying to cause havoc and get steals and they just kept executing."

The Bearcats out-rebounded SMU, 38-34, and scored 19 second-chance points to the Mustangs' nine. But on this day, they simply didn't have the offensive firepower to keep up, losing for the second time in three games against SMU this season.

"The lesson we'll take from it is making sure at the beginning of the game that you're ready to go because we dug ourselves a hole and I knew that it was gonna be really hard," Cronin said. "You've got to try to make sure you get off to a good start. But today, they were just the better team. They shot the ball in. They even shot guarded shots in. We didn't. We missed a lot of open shots."

Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years - 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer - before joining the staff of in January, 2015.