Despite lackluster performances from several of the names and faces their fans have come accustomed to carrying the load during Friday night's contest, the Cincinnati Bearcats used an inspired second half showing to take down perennial giant killer Holy Cross, 77-55.
Leading by only three at the break, 29-26, the ‘Cats utilized their prowess on the defensive end to help hold the Crusaders to just 10 second half field goals.
"Our athleticism and strength bothered them," explained UC head coach Andy Kennedy, who is now 3-0 to start his career as a college head coach. "The way
they play, the match-up zone, we got passive and once we got open looks, we made
them miss some at the rims and that frustrated them."
While the Bearcats numbers on the defensive end were more impressive during the first half, as only seven of their 19 turnovers came during the second period and they scored three more points (29) then they did during the opening period, when mixed with the high-powered UC attack the numbers seemed to pop out that much more.
Shooting 59-percent from the floor during the period, while netting 48 points on 13 field goals (14 made free-throws), the Bearcats were led offensively by the play of James White. White was the epitome of efficiency Friday night, scoring a game-high 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting. White, who struggled mightily in UC's season opener against Murray State (7-of-21), has proceeded to connect on 13 of the 18 shots he has put up over the past two games.
The Bearcats also saw outstanding individual performances from two of the newest Bearcats, Devan Downey and Ronald Allen. Downey, who led the Bearcats with 21 points coming of the bench in their previous outing against Illinois State, scored 12 points and dished out four assists and nabbed four steals in his first career start. Downey earned the start because of his strong play and the struggled of Jihad Muhammad, who is reeling offensively and physically, as he is nursing a sore groin which has helped add to his dismay on the court.
Allen, who has seen limited action since arriving at UC via Xavier (LA), continued to shoot well, knocking down both of his three-point attempts on way to a career-high 11 points. Allen, who hit 3-of-3 from range last game in seven minutes of actions, saw his playing time doubled to 14 against the Crusaders.
As they have done all season, it was the play of the bench and the new faces to the UC roster that propelled the team to victory. Players such as Downey, Allen, Dominic Tilford (6), and Cedric McGowan (9) have all had to help carry the load on a team that was hoping to see it's veteran leadership lead them to the Promised Land of a long overdue a run late into March.
Aside from White, the rest of the quartet of returning starters (Muhammad, Eric Hicks, Armein Kirkland) have yet to really hit their stride this season. While many of Muhammad's shortcoming can be blamed on the reliable scapegoat of injury, the play of Hicks and Kirkland has been most disappointing. Hicks, who recorded a double-double in the first game of the season, continues to struggle offensively. In 32 minutes on the floor, one of the biggest beasts in the Big East this season scored just five points and pulled down only five boards (all defensive). With McGowan still wet behind the ears and still lacking a real assertiveness on the court, the sluggish play of Hicks is even more detrimental for a team that lacks any true size. The Bearcats were beat on the glass once again, 39-37 (16 to 9 on the offensive glass), a statistic that will undoubtedly test all nine of the ‘Cats lives against Big East competition, as allowing second chances to the likes of Syracuse, UConn and Louisville could prove deadly.
However, it will not matter how many second chances the Bearcats allow this season if they do not find a way to wake up Kirkland from his season-long nap. While Kirkland decided to remove his name from the list of early entrants to the NBA Draft, it appears that Kirkland forgot to tell his game that he was coming back to the Campus at Clifton, as he has yet to do much of anything during the early part of this season. Shooting just 3-of-8 from the field (0-of-4 from deep), Kirkland scored just eight points and pulled down three boards in 31 minutes of action. Kirkland has yet to reach double-digits in the scoring column this season.
While still undefeated going into the final two games of their season-opening five-game homestand, the Bearcats will have to hope that the rest of the "usual suspects" show up in games versus Dayton (Tuesday) and nationally ranked Memphis (Saturday), who barely lost to Duke in the finals of the Preseason NIT.