With last night's second straight disheartening second half performance against two of college basketball's most recent National Champions, the post-Armein era is officially off to a slow start.
Coach Andy Kennedy's Bearcats who have been riddled with injuries, suspensions, and players leaving the program, was recently rewarded with his (and this team's) first appearance in the top-25 poll (#25) before losing senior swingman Armein Kirkland for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
"I would be doing a disservice to these kids, this program, and these fans, if we were to call it quits and think about ‘what could have been'. I will not allow this team to do that! I just hope we have not undone all are hard work we've put forth and the credibility we've earned over the course of one twenty minute period - I just hope we haven't already."
Kennedy was referring to his team's lackluster performance last night against one of college basketball's most historically successful program. Despite getting out to a sold start behind an energized crowd and a pumped team ready to make a name for themselves all over again, UC allowed "circumstances" to undo all the hard work they did in the first half by barely showing up during the second half.
Struggling to 34-34 tie at the end of 20 minutes of action, the Bearcats came out of the locker room flat. Eric Hicks, the senior forward who admittedly had one of his worst game as a collegiate (nine points and seven rebounds), questioned his team's heart after a horrible performance which saw the ‘Cats nearly get outscored by Syracuse guard and Nasmith Nominee Gerry McNamara.
"We've just got to find our heart," said the 6-6 power forward. "We didn't come out of the locker room for the second half. Well, our bodies may have, but our heart's stayed behind."
The 6-2 sharpshooter from Scranton, Pa, got just enough space off picks to go for 22 points during the half, connecting on seven of his 10 field goal attempts (4-of-6 from the outside).
The Bearcats struggled to do anything during that second half. Connecting on just 30-percent of their field goals (I am giving them more credit than they deserve; they only shot 29.6 percent (8-of-27). Andy Kennedy's squad could not even connect on free throws, a place where the Bearcats normally thrive. UC connected on just 61-percent of their attempts for the game (16-of-26), but were just five for nine during the second half.
"I think that what happened in the second half was when out guys would try to drive the lane or get inside the zone they felt like they were drawing contact and the officials were not rewarding them for it," said Coach Kennedy, who refused to let the officiating work as a scapegoat for out team. "We gave McNamara too much room – you cannot give that guy an inch of daylight or he will kill you. That maybe caused us to press a bit from the outside, getting down as much as we were, so they guys may have settled from the outside a bit. You just cannot "settle" against a team of this caliber, or it will come back to haunt you"
Possibly most upsetting the loyal crowd of 13, 176 fans, most of which were pro-UC, was the lack of effort and output the names and faces UC has counted on all season, and in particularly in on in the first. While UC did not play great collectively, James White and Cedric McGowan each proved to be solid contributors for the UC in the first half, keeping the team in a game that they probably should have been blown out.
White came out strong, scoring 14 points in the first half, but that was not a sustainable strength for the ‘Cats all game. Despite playing the same number of minutes he played during the first half, the entire 20 minutes, White was held to just two points, and lacked any real assertiveness at getting in the pain and showing penetration.
Much of the UC offense either was predicated on their ability to penetrate the paint, by way of transition after a turnover or missed shot, or by getting inside the patented 2-3 Zone Syracuse has become known. In the first half UC took advantage of sloppy UC play, in particularly that of Louie McCroskey (four turnovers in the half), connecting on eight of their 34 points came off to Syracuse turnovers.
When the ‘Cats were not on the run all 94 feet, they were doing a good job at showing quick burst of energy, getting in the paint, or finding ways to break the middle of the zone – the death of even the most volatile of defenses. Cincinnati managed to hold tight with the ‘Cuse, scoring 14 points in the paint to their opponents 18.
However, once the horn sounded signifying the start of the second half, something changed in the Orangeman and the Bearcats. The change was the Bearcats' "heart", as Hicks put it, stopped beating. All the while, the Orangemen not only made adjustments, but also seemed energized – especially rebounding the basketball.
Syracuse out worked the undersized ‘Cats on the Boards during the first half by 10, 27-to-17, (five on the offensive glass, 10-to-5), but the Bearcat "D" just lacked any "oomph" to stop the revitalized Syracuse efforts.
Syracuse saw the pair of Terrence Roberts and Demetris Nichols combine for 29 points and 20 rebounds, each going for a double double. Nichols also hit a crucial last-second three-point shot to tie the game at 34 going into intermission, something that may have taken some of the bite out of the Bearcats.
McGowan, who helped limit Syracuse to four second chance points in the first half, while helping his team to five of their own, was invisible during the second half. The Hicks-clone did not put forth an "Eric Hicks"-like effort during the second half. In fact, he did not appear to put forth any effort. After scoring six quick points in the first half, and pulling down six rebounds, the JUCO transfer was limited to just two rebounds in nine minutes of work. The Bearcats even turned to the efforts of freshman Tight End, yet I said Tight End, Connor Barwin to give the basketball team a pigskin pickup. While he gave the team energy and enthusiasm while on the court, including pumping up a crowd that helped keep the ‘Cats in the game for most of the first half, the lackluster performance of McGowan and White (and others) did just enough to undermine the perks he brought to the floor. They simply seemed to disappear, as did most of the Bearcat team.
UC, who forced the traditionally flawless motion attack of Boehiem's boys into 10 first half turnovers, regained their composure and their assertiveness on the offensive end during the second period. Turning the ball over just five times, while knocking down 16-of-their 29 field-goal attempts, including 4-of-8 from deep and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe, the Orange were simply too much for the Bearcats undermanned effort to overcome.
Many of the problems UC had could be blamed on an overzealous whistle-blowing strategy of the officials, or the fact they were dramatically undersized and under-manned, suiting up two gridiron standouts in Air Jordans, but most of the blame has to be on the ‘Cats inability to adapt to the ‘Cuse changes. The most pivotal correction Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Boehiem was able to instill was his team's work ethic. Slapping down hard on the zone, cutting off lanes of penetration, getting a little bit rougher when UC would try to take it inside, really took UC out of their rhythm.
However, quick to point out that his team would not "surrender without a fight" (pardon me Bill Paxton for stealing your line from Independence Day); Kennedy would not allow "circumstances" to undo the "hard work this team has put forth over the past two months." Kennedy, nor any of those associated with the basketball program, will allow this 2005-06 team to get down on themselves and give up all they've worked for to this point in the season.