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March 11, 2012It was fun while it lasted.
In mere days Cincinnati seeped into the national sports conscience by beating Georgetown in double overtime and heavy favorite Syracuse.
Remember Cincinnati was the sixth seed until the closing days of the Big East season. For them to defeat two legendary Big East programs in two days was at the least improbable, as the most miraculous.
In an odd way those wins hurt Cincinnati Saturday night in a 50-44 Championship Game loss to Louisville.
"I could tell the difference in the way we was getting ready for the game today," said Yancy Gates afterwards. "A lot of people didn't have the same focus as we did when we first got out here and I think because we won our first two games they were so tough and we won them the way we did, we felt like Louisville was going to come in here and kind of give it to us, but I think it was the reverse. We came in here and gave it to them because we weren't prepared to play a hard game until the second half, so we paid the price for it."
Cincinnati scored a Big East Championship low 14 first half points. Passes were lethargic and hardly opened up any opportunities. No outside shots fell. Every fast break met resistance. Center Gorgui Dieng made every drive a chore.
"Our strategy was very simple, we were going to show zone, play man but we were going to guard the NBA line," said Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino. "We were going to limit their attempt and if they did get an attempt it was not going to be a good look."
In winning his tenth career conference tournament crown Coach Pitino astutely pinpointed the Cat weakness. Outside shooting struggled and penetration met a foreboding Dieng.
In fact, generally steady Cashmere Wright traveled twice inches from Dieng. His towering presence blocked all movement.
Though UC trailed constantly tighter man defense brought UC within six points with 11:04 to play.
Kuric's three consecutive free throws, coming from a phantom Kilpatrick foul, really opened up the game. Despite the trudging Cincinnati mountain climb Louisville recaptured a eleven point lead, larger than they entered the half with.
Down thirteen points, 41-28, Cashmere Wright committed an unforgivable five second inbounds violation.
When Chris Smith nailed a leaning three-pointer on the ensuing possession the game, the week, the tournament seemed over.
Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick suggested a comeback was in the works in the subsequent moments. Their triples gave belief to those few UC fans in the building. It was not to be. A colossal lead and hours of momentum had already been amassed. You can't climb or move mountains in seven minutes.
With Russy Smith cloaking Justin Jackson, the Floridian shrugged/threw him off. It depends on your perspective. Guess the only perspective that matters in basketball is the official's and he saw offensive push.
Suddenly the ball returned to Louisville. Turnover erased. Momentum suspended.
It is the little moments that concoct the strange brew of momentum.
Toughness over beauty
No one will claim Cincinnati played beautiful basketball Saturday night. Sean Kilpatrick blasted through screens. Gates pounded his shoulder into Dieng's chest on each shot attempt. It was not aesthetically appealing but it was close late. And you can't ask for much more. There was a chance. A chance to grab the biggest trophy regardless of the games raunchy manifestation.
When times were tough JaQuon Parker, who to his credit mounted the second half charge with whirling layups, missed two straight free throws. Bad misses for a team that finished dead last in the league in free throw accuracy.
Converted shots would not have guaranteed a win; they just would have pulled UC within two points under two minutes. It would have pressured Louisville to execute. Without the shoulders of Cincinnati players crumpled. Now it was over.
The arduous, offensively-devoid event ended just as it began. Cincinnati was missing shots. And Louisville was bouncing in joy.
Special week for Yancy Gates
Though they lost Yancy Gates and Cashmere Wright earned placement on the All-Tournament Team. Three Louisville players also made the squad. Point guard Peyton Siva earned Most Outstanding Player.
For Gates this week generated a lot of positive buzz and calcified his program's ascendance.
"Really in reflecting on it I would have liked to have won it, but not many players at all get to say they have played in a Big East Championship," said Gates. "My first year we came out here and lost to a DePaul team that hadn't won a Big East game the whole season until we lost to them in the Big East Tournament. To go from that to where we at now is a long way. A real long way."