There were quite a few defining moments during Cincinnati’s basketball season. Most of us had hoped that one of them would be a defeat of Syracuse on January 23rd. The game was played up as it was supposed to be; a nationally televised game in a whited-out, sold out 5/3rd Arena against the #4 opponent in the country. Sure the stakes would have been higher had Notre Dame not handed Syracuse their first loss of the season just days before but that didn’t cause the game to lose any of its luster.
For the most part, the ‘Cats stayed with the Orange behind a suffocating defense and a slurry of three’s. At halftime Cincinnati was down just 3 having surrendered the lead only 1 minute early. But overall the Bearcats were dictating the pace of play. In the second half UC was able to tie the game and both teams again traded punches just like they did in the first half. But momentum began to swing around the 9-minute mark. At that point Cincinnati’s shots failed to fall while Syracuse just kept right on scoring. The Bearcats were able to get back on track but at that point it was too late. The Orange had already built a sizable lead and ate up the rest of the clock with their zone defense.
Cincinnati was defeated 60 – 53.
It was a slight sting in front of a raucous crowd but wasn’t a loss that would make or break the season. However it seemed like it was UC’s game to lose and they allowed Syracuse’ length, depth, and big-play abilities to let it slip away. Fortunately Cincinnati would have a shot at redemption in the Big East Tournament. The Orange were the #1 overall seed with tons of momentum heading into the tournament. They were sitting at 31 – 1 overall with their only loss being against Notre Dame, as I alluded to.
Remember, the Bearcats were coming off of a mentally and physically draining double-overtime win against Georgetown less than 24 hours earlier. Frankly the fact that they were able to get out of bed the next day was a feat in and of itself. UC not only showed up but they dominated. While the final score indicates a close contest, the Bearcats led wire to wire, were up 12 at halftime, and never took their foot off the gas. They got solid contributions from the starters and especially Yancy Gates who did a solid job shutting down the Orange defensively.
Clearly UC was peaking at the right time. The next night the Bearcats would lose to Louisville in the tournament final but knocking off a Syracuse team that had just one loss on the season was huge. They sent a message to the teams ahead of them in the NCAA Tournament that Cincinnati was a force to be reckoned with. I think most importantly the Bearcats proved to themselves that they could not only hang with the big boys in college basketball but beat them. That’s an important mindset to have when taking on the rigors of the NCAA Tournament in which only the best teams compete.