Case Of The Tortoise & The Golden Gopher

Bearcats earn another victory during this roller coaster ride of a season. Up next! South Carolina and then maybe a return trip to New York City for a NIT Championship. Read how the Bearcats reached the next level of the NIT.

Sluggish, sloppy, lacking effort, those are all words one could use to describe the start the University of Cincinnati had in their Tuesday night, NIT showdown against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. However, with their season, their collegiate careers, and very possibly their coaches' jobs on the line, the Bearcats "rallied the troops" to victory 76–62 over the Golden Gophers.

While the team may have started slow, the UC Cheerleaders were ready to get the crowd into the game

With 1:24 to go in the game there was not a single fan sitting in their seat and it stayed that way for the rest of the game. Ticks came off the clock; fans headed to the exit, but no one, not a single fan, sat down in an effort to show not-so-silent support for their team and their coach, Andy Kennedy.

The Bearcat coaching staff looked to get things going after a slow start by the team.

That support that the Bearcat faithful showed to both players and coach alike was not necessarily there from the onset of the game, as the ‘Cats got off to an incredibly slow start. Seeing the Gophers jump out to an early 6-0 lead on the back of hustle points, second chance rebounds and rare UC turnovers, the Bearcats seemed as if they were not there to play.

The UC Dance Team didn't let the fans get into their seats for too long on Tuesday night.

Cincinnati missed free throws and put backs, turned the ball over due to haphazard decision making, and just seemed to lack a real intensity on the court. Minnesota, on the other hand, came out with more energy and got out to a fast start, a start that nearly dismantled the Bearcat hopes of moving on to NYC and the NIT version of the Final Four. The Gophers knew that in a foot race the Bearcats would win 10 out of 10 times, so they had to do something to counteract their athleticism, cheat out of the blocks if you will.

James White works to keep Eric Hicks on track so the seniors could enjoy another day on the court at Fifth Third Arena.

The most noticeable among the absent were James White and Erick Hicks. The senior leaders of this piecemeal 2006 version of the rough and tumble, piss and vinegar Bearcat teams we are familiar with from seasons past were ready to punch DNP ("Did Not Play"), or at least DNCP ("Did Not Come to Play"), on the stat sheet with their early-minute performance.

White let a pair of early missed free throws get to his confidence, while it appeared that Hicks saw the bump and grind efforts of Minnesota in the low block frustrate him into having an off performance early on.

Ironically, it was Hicks who just last week refused to allow himself to go out at home, not in this fashion, not in his final home game. After his (and his entire team's) slow start, it looked like that would be exactly the way this season-long race to the finish line would end with them dead in their tracks.

Coach Andy Kennedy works Senior Eric Hicks to give him more on the court.

UC saw that six-point lead stare them in the face for roughly a quarter of the first twenty minutes of action, and with 14 minutes to play the Bearcats found themselves behind 11-6.

However, something happened after the under-14 minute timeout and a tongue lashing/gut check from their coach, that changed things, changed the way the ‘Cats were approaching the game. It was not so much their approach to the Gophers, as it looked like they could have their way even when they were struggling if they wanted to. Instead, it was the way they personally approached the game that seemed to differ for the Bearcat players from their post-tip off personas.

Players began to cut a little bit harder, make passes a little bit crisper, try a little bit harder, want it a little bit more. The entire team seemed to be energized, especially Cedric McGowan and "wild man" Connor Barwin. McGowan used a couple big buckets (five of his 11 points) and five rebounds (two offensive) during the half to help energize a turtle-like pace that had been established by the Bearcats early. Meanwhile Barwin used his typical reckless abandon style to please (and scare) the coaching staff, fans, teammates, and most importantly, the other team for much of his six first half minutes. Barwin, who tossed up an unwanted three-point bomb that even made Coach Kennedy chuckle, provided the Bearcats with two big points and three strong rebounds to help get the ‘Cats back in the game during the first half.

Connor Barwin again provided the Bearcats a spark when it needed it the most.

The Bearcats, who had been down by as many as six points, rode that energy and used a 14-0 run and a dominant final fifteen minutes of action to push their lead to as many as 12 during the period, closing out the half up 10, 39-29.

The energy of McGowan and Barwin, and seven big points from Chadd Moore, seemed to give Hicks and White the freedom and the energy they needed to lift them over the early-game hump into which they had fallen. From that point on, Hicks and White became too much for an inferior team in athletic ability to match-up.

Hicks, who lifted his team onto his shoulders in game one of the NIT and all season long, needed his teammates, his coach and the crowd (all 5,651 of them) to lift him up in order for him to be able to carry his team across the finish line that stood forty minutes away. Hicks became a man possessed, going for 23 points (8 in the first half) and ripping down 11 rebounds (four offensive), while rejecting four shots and becoming the Bearcats single-season record holder with 110 (Maxiell, 109). Fittingly, in a symbolic effort as to "swat the Gophers away", the record-breaking "block" came on Golden Gopher standout Vincent Grier, who scored 18 points but could only muster six of his 16 field-goal attempts through the hoop.

White, who allowed two early missed free throws to frustrate him for much of the game, managed to fight through that frustration and use it against his opponent. White pulled down four offensive rebounds (six overall) and got to the rim with ease, darting through defended en route to 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting.

Epitomizing the yeoman-like work effort displayed by the ‘Cats was Moore, the team's injury-plagued senior point guard who was forced to "grind-it-out" all night long. After missing the last game and much of last season (even retiring at one point) due to a chronic back ailment, Moore once again saw his back give him fits after getting out to a rapid start – one of the few on the Cincy bench. Sprawled out on the ground perpendicular to his team's bench with (22:14) on the clock, one would have thought the savvy Southern gentleman was done. Holding back the tears in his eyes, almost helpless, Moore, unlike the Phoenix which raises out of the ashes, rose from his own tears and sweat to lift the ‘Cats: physically and emotionally. Moore scored seven points, dished out three assists and picked off two Gopher passes, but the most important thing he did on the night was give his team 23 pain-ridden minutes. Moore gave the Bearcats a veteran presence on the floor in crunch time, but also set an example to his teammates, teaching them how to play through personal pain and adversity, sacrificing oneself for the team.

However, not all of the credit can be given to Moore and his rugged disregard for his health and personal well-being. Much of the praise has to be given to Andy Kennedy. The glorification of Kennedy does not come strictly due to his brilliant coaching decision to run the broken down veteran with one last push for personal success, but more his blatant refusal to let Moore take himself out of the game. With 4:15 to play in the game, Moore was made to endure the pain and play out much of the remaining game. Moore, who sat out last game was chastised a bit by his head coach after the ballgame, as he called into questions Moore's heart a bit by asking how a senior facing his last possible collegiate game could not find the will to suit up and at least give it a go.

To his credit, Kennedy needed his rail thin point guard with brittle bones last night (and probably last Friday night) because, despite his success all season long, Devan Downey still gives him that "look" like he is "on Spring Break" and not ready to have the ball in his hands down the stretch. Downey's six turnovers last night, in addition to only scoring seven points in 31 minutes of action, affirm the coach's position – though, Downey looked a bit confused and a tad upset with coach and his lack of desire to do what his players wanted. However, in the end, it worked! It worked like the Bearcats turn-it-off, turn-it-on style did; it worked as did the Bearcats slow to start quick to finish (at the rim) style. Let us hope they can say the same about their on-court stylings after the next game – or, better yet, let us not have to rely on "it worked" to get a return trip to New York City.

All Bearcats joined together to enjoy another victory and to live another day this season.

The Bearcats will return to action Thursday night at 6 pm, as they take on the defending NIT Champion South Carolina Gamecock at Fifth Third Arena.

Photos by Dave Berk and owned by Bearcat Insider


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