March 17, 2017
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By Bill Koch
SACRAMENTO - As is often the case with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, defense was the difference Friday. Or was it offense? After all, the Bearcats made their first 10 shots and shot 62.8 percent, the best they’ve ever shot in an NCAA Tournament game.
“When you’re playing well offensively, you’re setting your defense on the other end, so it’s kind of two-fold,” said UC coach Mick Cronin. “I think it goes hand-in-hand. Our offensive execution early got us baskets and allowed us to set our defense.”
Whatever the precise proportions, the combination of the two along with a 23-point performance by senior guard Troy Caupain that Cronin called “his best game of his career,” were enough to allow the Bearcats to dominate Kansas State, 75-61, in the first round of the South Regional in Golden 1 Center.
No. 6 seed UC (30-5) became the second team in UC history to win 30 games in a season and advanced to the second round for the fourth time in the last seven years. The Bearcats will play in the second round Sunday against No. 3 seed UCLA, which defeated Kent State. No. 11 seed Kansas State finished 21-14.
The Wildcats were led by Wesley Iwundu with 19 points. It wasn’t all Caupain’s show. Kyle Washington scored 16 points for UC – 11 in the second half – and Gary Clark added 15 points with seven rebounds.
But Caupain, who also grabbed seven rebounds with two assists and two turnovers in 38 minutes, set the tone early and was a settling influence during those few instances when it appeared the Wildcats might stage a comeback.
“That’s where the senior point guard comes in,” Cronin said, “having a guy that’s been in so many of those games. He knows where to pick his spots, making sure we’re not forcing anything.”
Caupain scored 14 of his points in the first half on five-of-five shooting, including one from long range.
“It was just confidence and having the thought of not wanting to go home early,” Caupain said. “I want to keep wearing this Cincinnati jersey, keep wearing this uniform, keep playing for my guys, not wanting to break up the team that we have. I had that on my mind. I just wanted to feed my energy off to the guys.”
The Bearcats trailed for all but 43 seconds. They led, 20-11, after a Nysier Brooks free throw with 11:03 left in the first half. The Wildcats got within seven with 4:55 left in the half, but UC closed strong to take a 39-28 lead into intermission.
The start of the second half belonged to Washington, who went to the bench with 7:23 left in the first half after picking up his second foul. It was the third straight game in which Washington was forced to the bench with two first-half fouls. When he returned to start the second half, he attacked the basket with a vengeance, scoring the Bearcats’ first six points.
“When he plants his flag down there he’s a problem,” Cronin said. “I’m all for the occasional pop out but he does teams a favor when he runs out of the low post.”
Kansas State threatened to get back in the game only one more time in the second half when it got within six at 49-43 after Barry Brown made a 3-pointer. Cronin quickly called timeout, after which Jarron Cumberland dropped in a runner in the lane. After a Kansas State turnover, Jarron made two free throws to get the lead back to 10 with 12:58 remaining. The Wildcats never got closer than eight the rest of the way and trailed by 17 with 5:31 left.
“They played at a high level,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber. “They made a lot of big plays and got the ball where it needed to go. Every time we made a run to put a little pressure on them it seemed like they stepped it up, made the play or we missed a layup or maybe tried to go too fast and make a tough play. They were good tonight. There is no doubt about that.”
Caupain appeared more aggressive attacking the basket than he has at any point this season. Part of that, he said, was because Kansas State didn’t clog the lane the way teams in the American Athletic Conference do. Cronin theorized that it was simply because he knew he couldn’t be stopped.
“He put that guy on his hip almost like Oscar Robertson,” Cronin said. “He got him on his hip, got inside the foul line and jumped up and put the ball in the basket. You could tell he knew that they couldn’t really stop him. That’s why I was trying to keep the ball in his hands.”
Not only couldn’t Kansas State stop Caupain, it couldn’t find a way to solve UC’s defense and shot just 38.9 percent from the field. It was the same high-quality defense the Bearcats had played for most of the season but somehow had let slip during their last two games in the AAC tournament.
“In the last couple of games we’ve been letting teams do what they want offensively and not really sitting down and guarding anyone,” Clark said. “Teams were comfortable, their best players were getting in a groove of things. When you let the other team play well and their best players get in a groove it’s hard to sustain a lead.”
The Bearcats were asked a lot after the game about whether they intended to send a message with their dominant win over Kansas State, a concept they weren’t interested in exploring. For them, this was all about playing one of their best games of the season at an opportune time. The trick now is to keep it going Friday against UCLA.
“I’m sure nobody will give us a chance Sunday, but that’s OK,” Cronin said. “I told the guys you’ve got to beat good teams if you’re gonna win it all anyway. That’s the mindset I want them to have.”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January 2015.