CINCINNATI (AP)—The storm clouds were brewing, but Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin refused to let the raindrops hit him.
Cronin kept telling the Bearcats to believe in themselves even as they dropped three of four, even as star forward Yancy Gates found himself suspended and then benched in the second half of a loss to St. John’s on Sunday.
“I told them, ‘We’re 19-6, we need to be proud of it, need to act like it,”’ Cronin said. “We don’t need to let anybody define us individually or as a group that’s outside of our locker room.”
His team responded with the defining win of its season.
Cashmere Wright scored 20 points, Sean Kilpatrick added 18 and Cincinnati bolstered its NCAA tournament resume with a 63-54 victory over No. 16 Louisville on Wednesday night.
Gates added eight points and six rebounds in 30 energetic minutes off the bench for the Bearcats (20-6, 7-6 Big East), who smothered the Cardinals to reach the 20-win plateau for the first time since 2006.
“Everybody doubts us on the court—we don’t care,” Gates said. “It doesn’t matter to us.”
Terrence Jennings led Louisville (19-7, 8-5) with 12 points but the Cardinals turned it over 15 times and never got into a rhythm in the face of Cincinnati’s relentless defense.
Louisville shot a respectable 47 percent from the floor but made just four of 17 3-pointers, five below its season average.
Cronin, who spent two years as an assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino, likened the Cardinals’ ability to get steals off its press and knock down 3-pointers in a hurry to “Batman with his armor and Superman with his cape.”
“If you take away who they are, they’re just Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne,” Cronin said.
Cincinnati made the Cardinals look ordinary for long stretches. The Bearcats never trailed and led by as many as 15 early in the second half before Louisville cut the deficit to 43-38 with 13:15 to play.
The Cardinals have put together a number of big rallies over the last six weeks, including an 18-point comeback against Marquette that jump-started their season. Cronin sensed the momentum swing and quickly called timeout.
He reminded the Bearcats to keep attacking.
“We talk about hammer and the nail, we wanted to be the hammer tonight,” Cronin said.
Cincinnati scored the next seven points to push the lead back to 12, then snuffed any hopes of another dramatic comeback when Wright hit a difficult twisting layup just before the shot clock expired to give Cincinnati a 56-43 lead with 6:21 to go. Louisville never threatened again.
“When you get in a game like that when it is such a slow-paced game and it’s smash-mouth basketball, you have to match the defensive effort without fouling,” Pitino said. “We physically couldn’t match that and that is the reason that we lost the game.”
The Cardinals have been one of the Big East’s biggest surprises, entering the game in a tie for third in the conference despite a slew of injuries Pitino has called the “most annoying” of his long career.
Louisville is finally healthy, and Pitino said Tuesday he was eager to see what the Cardinals could do with a full complement of players.
For a game at least, the answer apparently was “not much.”
Cincinnati’s defense had plenty to do with it. Pitino called the previous matchup—a 69-66 win by the Bearcats in last year’s Big East tournament, the “ugliest” game in the history of Madison Square Garden.
Things weren’t much prettier on Wednesday, though you won’t hear Cincinnati complaining after the two rivals spent 40 minutes tussling all over the Fifth-Third Arena floor.
The Bearcats played with an urgency they’ve lacked of late as the drama surrounding Gates coincided with disheartening home losses to West Virginia and the Red Storm.
Cronin said he was “sick for two days” after falling to St. John’s, a loss in which Gates played just one minute in the second half while Cronin opted for the five players he thought “would help us win.”
Gates pouted at the end of the bench, but all appeared to be forgiven by the time Gates checked in to a round of applause about 4 minutes in Wednesday. The Bearcats went right to him and he scored an early basket as Cincinnati controlled play from the outset, using an 11-0 run fueled by some energetic defense and stellar shooting by Wright to take a quick 18-6 lead.
“Yancy had a great game. The stat line doesn’t do justice to how big an effect he had on the game,” Cronin said. “He had zero turnovers against a team that tried to double-team him all night.”
Their big man back patrolling the middle, the Bearcats sliced through Louisville’s matchup zone relentlessly on offense, then bottled up the Cardinals at the other end of the floor.
Louisville missed its first four 3-pointers and looked disorganized at times with starting point guard Peyton Siva missing most of the half with foul trouble.
“We have to come out and be tougher,” Jennings said. “They were the tougher team tonight, and they played great.”
Freshman Elisha Justice eventually followed Siva to the bench with two fouls of his own, forcing Preston Knowles to run the point.
It failed to spark the Cardinals, and Cincinnati rolled into the break with a 36-24 edge, halfway to the quality win it desperately needed to bolster its hopes of making the NCAAs for the first time since 2005.
Not that the Bearcats are packing their bags. Five regular-season games remain and the Big East remains a jumbled mess, with eight teams having either five or six conference losses.
“You worry about going to play musical chairs at the end and you’re going to get left out,” Cronin said. “You don’t want to be that team.”
Pitino, however, is convinced the Bearcats belong in the postseason.
“They needed this win to get them in the NCAA and they certainly deserved it,” he said.