Down double digits twice, the Bearcats fought hard to keep themselves in the game, getting the score all the way back to even as late as 7:53 to play in the game (72-72). In the end, however, it was the ability of the Tigers to make the plays down the stretch that won it for Memphis (6-1). It also shows why their team, though young, is one of the premier teams in the country. Poise in the clutch is what separates a young Memphis team from a young Cincinnati squad.
"I thought our effort, our will to win was strong, but you have to step up and make shots," said Kennedy, who is now 3-2 in his young coaching career. "Unlike the Dayton game, we did get over the hump, down double-digits a couple times we tied it up, but when we got there, we just didn't make enough big plays to win the game. We lost focus and you can't expect to do that and win games."
Despite first half foul trouble for both of Memphis' best players to this point in the season, senior Rodney Carney and freshman phenom Shawne Williams (combined five points in 11 first-half minutes) and 11 first half turnovers, the Bearcats still struggled to take advantage of the foul/mistake plagued Tigers. The ‘Cats allowed perpetual fifth option Antonio Anderson (5.2 ppg) to explode onto the scene. The 6-6 freshman scored fourteen critical points in the opening period, and exploded for 32 for the game (11-of-15, 7-of-9).
"He's a good player, don't get me wrong, but we made him look like a lottery pick," said Kennedy. The much-seasoned Calipari has prepared Anderson and his teammates for switches to a zone the likes of which Kennedy used at times during the game. The Bearcat zone was often overextended and saw the holes that epitomize a zone leave the sharpshooter wide open. "The intensity is going to be there, you don't have to worry about that, we just have to bring focus and the right mindset game-in and -out."
One of Kennedy's expected go-to-guys on the court and in the huddle, Armein Kirkland, was one of those players that exhibited great intensity all game, and shares the sentiment found in his coach's statement. "It seemed like every time we get to a place where we could get out in front we would lose focus," said Kirkland. "It seemed like we have to get down 12 points in order to make a charge, and then when we get there we just lose it."
However, for myself personally, I do not know if I was more surprised by the inability of the Bearcats to get over the hump, or the fact they got anywhere near that hump in the first place. While harsh, the play of Kirkland and fellow maligned guard Jihad Muhammad has seen UC's men's basketball team suffer greatly throughout this young season. While a 3-2 in the record books, their play has been far from acceptable according the expectations that everyone seems to have for them.
Tonight saw a change in the pair of Bearcat vets that we can only hope helps propel them personally and their team over the hump in the not-too-distant future. The first four games of the season saw once NBA bound Kirkland and Jihad Muhammad struggle mightily. In today's outing, however, the ‘Cats saw the "should be" dynamic duo perform the best they have all season. Muhammad, who has struggled with a groin injury and his removal from the starting lineup all season long, finished with a game-high 17 points. The senior guard connected on six of his 13 shots (3-of-5 from behind the arc).
Kirkland, who dabbled with the idea of jumping to the NBA after his junior season, scored in double figures for the first time during his senior campaign. Kirkland also showed a creativeness with the ball that he lacked all season. In fact, both seniors performed the best they have all season long.
However, their "best to this point" was not good enough for Kennedy, who is currently involved in the first losing streak in the history of Fifth Third Arena, and had to endure "fire Nancy" chants during the end of the game, an allusion the Bearcats ill-taken decision to let go of Queen City icon Bob Huggins.
"Absolutely not," said Kennedy emphatically, too proud of the Bearcat tradition to accept that his team is stooping to moral victories. "This is the University of Cincinnati men's basketball, not for one second will we take one bit of moral victory out of that performance. We are not going there on my watch."
However, on his watch he has seen a team of veteran players fail to perform at the level to which they are expected.
"I didn't do too much better," said Eric Hicks about his 15 point (3-of-11) 14-rebound effort, which came just several days after a most disappointing showing against Dayton. "A loss is a loss; there isn't anything different about this loss than any other." Kirkland echoes the response of his frontcourt companion, noting that his personal history as a Bearcat alone will not allow him to take any solace in this defeat.
"I've been here for three years already. We've beaten them here; We've beaten them at their place. We expected to win this game. There was no reason we should have won this time."
While the Bearcat program refuses to acknowledge any "positives" this outing may induce, using expectations and history as their prime reasons for doing so, there is no denying the evident fact that this afternoon saw much the Bearcats can build on for the rest of the season. With the return of Chadd Moore to the lineup for their next game, the first road game of the 2005-06 season (Vanderbilt), and the "positives" displayed during today's contest (on the court and in the press room), there is no reason that UC should not better because of this game.