After Cincinnati walked off the court following a 76-53 blowout loss to No. 8 Xavier, their season seemed to be in shambles. Not only was the 23-point loss an embarrassment, but the two teams engaged in a bench-clearing brawl in the final seconds of the game. When senior forward and Cincinnati native Yancy Gates channeled his inner Manny Pacquiao and decked Xavier center Kenny Frease with a punch to the face, suspensions were inevitable. However, head coach Mick Cronin was able to resurrect his team, and shuffle the lineup around to highlight a fast-paced tempo, featuring rising star Sean Kilpatrick. The Bearcats won all six games while Gates was serving his suspension, including a road win at then-ranked No.22 Pittsburgh. Cincinnati looked to continue their hot streak as they traveled on Wednesday to Storrs to take on No. 11(ESPN/USA Today) Connecticut.
The game began and ended as the Sean Kilpatrick show. He led the Bearcats on an early run to establish a lead that would keep the Husky fans quite for most of the first half. Contributions by Gates and Jaquon Parker helped Cincinnati to finish the half with a 42-33. Sophomore guard Shabazz Napier had 13 first-half points, but his erratic decision-making led to several turnovers and stagnant offensive possessions. The Huskies struggled to move the ball at times in their half-court sets, and seemed to miss the presence of freshman point-guard Ryan Boatright, who missed his second-straight game due to an NCAA investigation regarding his eligibility. Boatright has averaged just over 10 points and three assists per game, has provided a spark to the Huskies’ offensive attack when in the lineup.
UConn came out strong in the second half, with Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond leading the Huskies on a 15-2 run. A layup by Roscoe Smith gave UConn their first lead of the game at 52-50. From then on it would be a back-and-forth contest. Cincinnati was able to pull ahead with clutch long-range shooting, with Kilpatrick finishing the game with five three-pointers. After Cincinnati was unable to convert on a couple of foul shots, Napier hit a three to put UConn within three points at 66-63. Napier then nailed yet another three with 10 seconds left. In the closing moments of the game, Kilpatrick was poised and prepared to answer, which he did with just over 2 seconds remaining. That would prove to be the game-winner, as a Niels Giffey desperation heave came close but rimmed out as time expired.
This loss drops the Huskies all the way to 8th place in the Big East, and is already the third in-conference loss for the defending national champions. UConn clearly has the talent to make a run in the Big East, but needs to create more opportunities to get the ball in the hands of pre-season All-American Jeremy Lamb. Boatright resolving his eligibility issues should help, but until then the pressure will fall mostly on Napier. UConn will play out of conference next as they travel to Tennessee on Saturday, but return home to face conference foe Notre Dame for a Monday night matchup.
Cincinnati is now 10-1 since the December brawl against Xavier, and sits behind only undefeated No.1 ranked Syracuse. The Bearcats have seemed to move past their December 10th incident, and move forward they must, as the schedule does not get any easier for Kilpatrick and company. Cincinnati will play yet another big road matchup this Saturday when they travel to Morgantown to play West Virginia, followed by a highly-anticipated home matchup against Syracuse on Monday night.