'Cats Spoil Huggins' Homecoming

In his 16 seasons as the head coach at the University of Cincinnati Bob Huggins compiled a 399-127 record. In just two years as the head man at West Virginia Huggins is now 0-2 against his former team, as the Bearcats hung on Thursday night to win in a close game, 65-61.

Yancy Gates had a career night for the Bearcats (18-10, 8-7 in the Big East), setting a new career-high 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting and tying a career-high with 11 rebounds to complete the double-double. Gates played nearly the entire night due to the recent injury of fellow UC forward Mike Williams, who missed Thursday's game with a sprained MCL.

"Not having Mike, coach told me I was probably going to have to play more minutes than normal," Gates said. "A lot in practice I didn't come out as much, and I practiced more at the four (position) for when I was in with Steve (Toyloy). Playing without Mike is something I'm kind of used to because we play on different teams in practice. It was just more minutes I had to play."

Current UC head coach Mick Cronin called the game Gates' best of the season, but shook much of the credit off to his staff of assistants and their preparation with the UC big man.

"My staff did a great job with their preparation with Yancy on what West Virginia was going to try to do," Cronin said. "He'll continue to be effective if he continues to command position the way he commanded position and carved out space for himself. His talent is there, it's just a matter of getting him to exert his physicality. It's like I tell him, it's no good to be that big and have that big a butt and not use it. Everything else with that is a problem, getting clothes that fit, everything else. It's good between the lines if you use it.

While Gates was able to pick up the slack, the Bearcats did miss the 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds Williams averages per game this season.

"It hurt us a little bit, because Mike can flash in there, he can make that 15-footer, he can pass, and if he gets one of us a shot and we miss it, he's going to go get the rebound," said junior guard Deonta Vaughn. "It hurt us a little bit but we were able to get through it."

Cronin said Williams had been sore for a couple of weeks, but that the big man tweaked the injury during the Louisville game.

"He's medically cleared, but he's just sore," Cronin said. "He's tried to practice for about 30 minutes yesterday. He didn't look like he was real comfortable. There's no point in trying to force a guy out there in his situation."

Vaughn finished the game just below his average with 13 points, but shot just 5-of-13 from the field, including 2-of-7 from three. The Bearcats overall shot poorly from long range (6-of-20), but such was to be expected against West Virginia, who ranks second nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense.

Following a video tribute to Huggins recognizing him as the winningest coach in UC history, the Bearcats came out of the gates sluggish and sloppy. West Virginia led by as many as eight points in the first half, but Cincinnati was able to right the ship.

"I thought the first 10 minutes of the game our defense was awful, like it had been," said Cronin. "We held them to six points in the last 10:30 of the first half. At that point we started playing much harder. We started defending, we started rebounding, offensive rebounding in particular. We had six (offensive rebounds) in the last ten minutes of the first half. We just raised our intensity level, which is something I've been calling upon our guys to do against really good teams."

The Mountaineers (19-9, 8-7 in the Big East) held a one-point lead at the break of what was a back-and-forth game all night. There were seven ties and nine lead changes, with the lead extending to double digits only briefly for the Bearcats before West Virginia scored seven straight points to make it 57-54 with 5:19 to play.

The Bearcats had opportunities to put the game out of reach late, but couldn't convert on five of their final seven attempts from the foul line, allowing the Mountaineers to remain in the game.

"We got up ten, and we decided to miss every free throw," said Cronin.

WVU had their fare share of chances, but missed four of their final five field goals over the final three minutes of the game.

"We had all kinds of opportunities, we just didn't execute," Huggins said.

West Virginia cut the lead to just one with 1:22 remaining in the game on a John Flowers free throw. Toyloy would hit just one of his four free throw attempts over the next 28 seconds, but Devin Ebanks turned the ball over the next chance the Mountaineers had. Will Thomas was called for an intentional foul on Vaughn, who made it a three-point game from the foul line with just four seconds to go.

"That, for all practical purposes," said Huggins of the play, "ended any chance that we had."

Alex Ruoff led the way for West Virginia with 18 points despite shooting just 3-of-15 from the floor including 2-of-11 from three. Ten of Ruoff's points were earned at the charity stripe.

Da'Sean Butler scored just eight points for the Mountaineers, ten points below his average. He went 4-of-11 from the field, missing both his attempts from long range.

"I thought that we could have made more than we did. They jammed it up where we couldn't score close. They forced us to make jump shots, and we didn't make any. We didn't make enough," said Huggins. "But even then we had opportunities and our execution down the stretch just wasn't very good."

For Huggins, Thursday was the first time in his 16 seasons of coaching in Fifth Third Arena that a team he coached sat on the visitor's bench.

"Honestly, (before the game) I was standing in front of (the Cincinnati) bench, I'm so used to standing there," Huggins said. "Mick came over and I was talking to Mick, and I didn't realize I was at the wrong bench until the officials came over there."

A who's who of former UC basketball players came out to support their former coach and his return to The Shoe, including Nick Van Excel, Reuben Patterson, Jihad Muhammad, Ryan Fletcher, Andre Tate, and Melvin Levitt.

"I love Cincinnati, and I love living here. I love the people here. I walk in yesterday and seven or eight of my guys are there, and they're there tonight, and Nick (Van Excel) flies in from Houston," Huggins said. "I had special guys. I had wonderful guys. I've got enough memories to last me a lifetime."

For Huggins, the return to Cincinnati and Fifth Third Arena took an emotional toll.

"This is a special place. It's always going to have a special place in my heart," said the coach. "I couldn't help but tear up and become very emotional when they did the video. I knew I was going to do it so I didn't want to look, but then I thought it was disrespectful if I didn't look, and I knew it was going to happen when I did look."

The 11,332 fans inside The Shoe Thursday never stopped clapping during the Huggins tribute video, and the applause jumped even higher when Huggins waved to address the crowd, filled with "Thanks Huggs" signs, afterwards.

"Obviously for the fans this was a great game, to be able to give coach Huggins an unbelievable ovation and a thank you message to him," Cronin said.

But for this Cincinnati team, what was to take place on the court in the present was far more important than recognizing a UC coach of the past.

"We weren't really worried about Huggs coming in here; we were just worried about getting this win for the NCAA tournament, keeping our hopes alive," said Vaughn.

The next chance for the Bearcats to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive will come Sunday afternoon as the ‘Cats travel to New York to face the Syracuse Orange at 2 p.m.

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