In a gritty, overtime road win at #21 Iowa State, this UC team proved that they’ve found the one piece they were missing last season: the mental toughness to win close games.
In what resembled an old-school, Cronin-ball, pre-2013 Big East rock fight, the Cincinnati Bearcats gutted out a key win on the road at #21 Iowa State, snapping the Cyclones’ 37-game non-conference winning streak at venerable Hilton Coliseum and giving the Bearcats a nice feather in their tournament resume cap.
In what has been proclaimed as a new era of Mick Cronin basketball that was supposed to be filled with scoring and uptempo play (and perhaps be somewhat devoid of the lockdown defense we’ve come to expect from from UC), the Bearcats won the old way on Thursday: defense and rebounding. UC outrebounded Iowa State by 12 in total, but I was most impressed by the Bearcats’ ability to crash the offensive glass and earn extra possessions. It kept us in the game when Iowa State had built a four-to-six point lead in the second half that seemed precariously close to slipping out of reach.
Gary Clark, Kyle Washington, and Nysier Brooks all played wonderful games in the post, especially rebounding the ball. Brooks, while only scoring two points (on a beautiful post move, BTW), showed the ability be a contributing member by grabbing four rebounds, three of which were on the offensive end. Clark and Washington continued to show their scoring ability, and were two of four Bearcats’ starters who finished in double digits. The balanced attack got the job done for UC.
There were a few alarming moments where I thought I was seeing the same old Bearcats late in the fourth quarter. The ‘Cats gave up a two-on-one break just before the under-4:00 media timeout in which Iowa state missed the initial layup, but Troy Caupain not only didn’t block out the trailer, but fouled him for an and-one dunk. The three-point play put UC down four. Jacob Evans committed a bad turnover with under a minute left and the ‘Cats down two – and I mean really bad. I instantly thought that was the dagger. But the Bearcats pressured the ball instead of fouling, and Evans was the guy who stole the ball right back for UC, leading to Gary Clark’s game-tying jump shot at regulation time waned.
Last year’s Bearcats would’ve folded under that adversity and found a way to lose. Really, the same thing happened a few weeks back against Rhode Island – they folded like a wavy piece of spaghetti down the stretch in a close game. But I’m optimistic that this year’s Bearcats are finally figuring out how to win. They showed great mental toughness to force OT despite trailing the entire way down the stretch, played excellent end-of-period defense on two chances for a Cyclone buzzer-beater, and Evans was cooler than the other side of the pillow in sinking both free throws of a do-or-die one-and-one bonus to win the game.