CINCINNATI (AP)—Jihad Muhammad doesn’t want to read too much into one good game.
Or two good ones, for that matter.
Cincinnati’s point guard scored a career-high 24 points, including six 3-pointers, and Jason Maxiell added 18 points Wednesday night, leading the 22nd-ranked Bearcats to a 77-56 win over Tulane.
After losing his job because of a deep shooting slump, Muhammad re-emerged by scoring 21 points in his last game. He did even better on Wednesday, coming off the bench to steady the Bearcats (23-6, 11-4 Conference USA) through a ragged showing.
Muhammad led a 20-4 run that put the Bearcats in control in the second half, and finished 6-of-9 from behind the arc.
After all he’s been through, Muhammad was reluctant to say his confidence was all the way back.
“I don’t know where it is right now,” Muhammad said. “I’m just going to try to build on this one.”
With the victory and Memphis’ 70-61 loss to Saint Louis on Wednesday, the Bearcats clinched a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Cincinnati wanted to win the regular season championship in its last year before moving to the Big East, but has lowered its goals with that one out of reach.
“We wanted to get the bye and to win the conference tournament,” Maxiell said.
The Green Wave (9-17, 3-12) has lost a season-high five in a row, all by double digits. Tulane is one of four teams vying for the final three spots in the conference tournament.
Tulane shot 38.2 percent from the field against a defense that holds opponents to 36.8 percent on average, second-best in the nation. Taylor Rochestie led the Green Wave with 14 points. Senior guard Marcus Kinzer, still limited after severely spraining an ankle on Jan. 19, finished with nine.
The Bearcats honored four senior players before the game, including shooting guard Nick Williams. He left with a sprained foot 3 minutes into the game after Matt Wheaton knocked him to the floor on a drive to the basket, drawing an intentional foul. X-rays found no fracture, but Williams didn’t return.
There was no immediate indication how long he’ll be sidelined.
“It put a damper on my spirits,” coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s been playing great. The scary thing is that it’s the same foot that he broke (in 2002). I think he’s going to be fine.”
Walk-on guard John Meeker, another of the four seniors, got to make his first start in 56 career appearances and helped the Bearcats pull ahead 10-2.
Then, Meeker sat down and things got ugly.
Cincinnati has struggled most of the season to get points out of its halfcourt offense. The Bearcats were out of sync against a defense that blanketed power forwards Eric Hicks and Maxiell, their top scoring threats.
Tulane went only 3-of-13 from the field and had 10 turnovers in the first 9 1/2 minutes, but stayed close because the Bearcats couldn’t score with any consistency. Hicks’ rebound and jumper just before the buzzer put Cincinnati up 32-22 at halftime.
In one defining moment, Hicks shot on airball on a free throw, drawing a collective groan from the less-than-capacity crowd of 12,262. Huggins slumped back in his folding chair and seethed while his team struggled.
Donnie Stith’s 3-pointer made it 43-38 with 14:18 left, the Bearcats’ smallest lead since the opening minutes. Huggins fumed over his team’s lackluster defense, which helped the Green Wave keep it close.
“It’s hard to play defense without any enthusiasm,” Huggins said. “We were not very enthusiastic. It’s a shame.”
Muhammad’s floating jumper then blunted Tulane’s comeback and started Cincinnati’s decisive run. He also scored on a drive to the basket, made a fastbreak bounce pass through defenders that set up Maxiell’s emphatic dunk, and hit a 3-pointer for a 63-42 lead.