Nov. 15, 2015
Box Score | Quotes | Notes
By Bill Koch
CINCINNATI – Robert Morris was supposed to present more of a test for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats than Western Carolina offered last Friday in the season opener.
The Colonials return four starters from a team that won the Northeast Conference tournament last year and beat North Florida in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four before losing to Duke. This year they were picked to finish second in the NEC by the league’s coaches and they have a pre-season first-team all-conference selection in senior guard Rodney Pryor.
As it turned out, the Bearcats (2-0) had an easier time with Robert Morris (0-2) than they did with Western Carolina, rallying from a slow start to post a 106-44 victory Sunday at Fifth Third Arena.
The point total was the highest for UC in the Mick Cronin coaching era, which began in 2006. The 62-point margin was also the largest under Cronin. UC’s 32 assists were the second-highest total in school history. The Bearcat, who led by 67 with 1:53 to play, outscored Robert Morris 55-19 in the second half.
Farad Cobb scored 15 points to lead UC, which placed eight players in double figures. But for all the eye-popping offensive numbers, it was UC’s defense that caught Cronin’s attention.
“I know we scored a lot of points,” Cronin said, “but it was because of our defensive effort.”
The Bearcats forced 29 turnovers and scored 36 points off them and limited Robert Morris to 27.7 percent shooting. They shot 53.5 percent from the field, 45.8 percent from 3-point range. And they out-rebounded Robert Morris, 44-24. Every number on the post-game stat sheet revealed UC’s complete domination. The Bearcats led 54-12 in points in the paint, 36-10 in points off turnovers, 13-4 in second-chance points, 22-10 in fast-break points and 57-21 in bench scoring.
But with 10:45 left in the first half, they led by just one at 15-14, and were having trouble solving the Robert Morris zone. Then, as if someone flipped a switch, UC took off. The Bearcats scored nine straight points on the way to a 16-4 run and took control of the game.
“We just had to feel out that defense,” said Kevin Johnson, who made four of nine from 3-point range and scored 14 points. “It was the first time we’ve seen zone so it slowed us down a little bit. But once we got our defense going, got a couple of stops, that led to some easy transition buckets. That’s how we like to score. Then you have to worry about our post-up game, kicking out, making shots. It breaks the defense down to open up our offense.”
Cronin credited the second unit with providing the spark that sent the Bearcats on the way to a performance that had fans in the crowd of 6,292 roaring their approval, perhaps recognizing a level of offensive talent that has not been seen at UC in recent years.
“It was good to see that our freshmen were able to come in a close game and make the impact they made,” Cronin said. “I thought the second unit guys of Kevin, Justin (Jenifer) and Jacob (Evans) came in and really changed the game, knocking some shots down and getting some ball movement and getting in the press. They did an excellent job in the press. From there it was a snowball effect.”
Jenifer, the freshman point guard who has quickly endeared himself to UC fans, scored 11 points with nine assists in just 16 minutes. He and Troy Caupain combined for 18 assists from the point guard position.
“Justin is a fast player,” said senior center Coreontae DeBerry, who scored 12 points with eight rebounds and two blocked shots. “When I’m on the floor with Justin, I’ve got to be alert at all times because I never know when he’s going to throw the pass. I’ve got to have my hands ready.”
A year ago DeBerry struggled to get up and down the floor because he was carrying so much weight. But against Robert Morris, he played 20 effective minutes, giving Cronin another option on a team seemingly filled with options for every contingency.
“It feels way better being 30 pounds less,” DeBerry said, “so now I don’t feel like I’ve got a piano on my back. I can actually run the floor to be in better shape, playing more minutes.”
The first two games of the season have shown the Bearcats to be a deep, talented team with no apparent weaknesses. They’ve averaged 101.5 points after averaging 60.5 in their first two games last year.
Cronin has done nothing to downplay the expectations for this team, but he also knows that two lopsided wins over two mid-major opponents, no matter how well the Bearcats have played, doesn't mean it’s time to order Final Four tickets.
“This is a marathon,” Cronin said. “It’s going to get a lot tougher. I’ve been around long enough to know that we’re just getting started.”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of Go.Bearcats.com in January, 2015.