NEW YORK (AP) — Yancy Gates has been going through something akin to group therapy. He’s been sitting with the Cincinnati coaching staff, chatting up teammates for hours, doing whatever he can to become more productive on the floor.
It’s certainly paid off in the Big East tournament.
Gates was nearly perfect from the field Wednesday night, scoring a career-high 25 points and leading the 25th-ranked Bearcats to an 87-61 rout of upstart South Florida.
“I’ve been going through a lot of things,” Gates said. “Been meeting with the coaches, talking to them and stuff. I’ve got great teammates, been talking to them. I knew I would be important down this stretch. It was just figuring out how best to do it.”
He’s figured it out.
Gates was 10 of 11 from the field for the seventh-seeded Bearcats, who will play No. 2 seed Notre Dame in the quarterfinals Thursday night. His only miss came with 8:35 left in the game.
“He just had a tremendous game,” South Florida’s Jarrid Famous said. “There was not much we could really do to stop him.”
Dion Dixon added 21 points and Sean Kilpatrick had 12 for Cincinnati (25-7), which has won six of its last seven, matching the school’s biggest win total since the 2004-05 season.
That was the last time Bob Huggins was roaming the sidelines, and also the last time the Bearcats made the NCAA tournament. They sure won’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday, instead playing this week for seeding — and just maybe their first Big East tournament title.
“I don’t have to worry about motivating,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “Teams we beat twice are ahead of us, teams that have more losses than us are ranked ahead of us.
“It’s unfair, and I told these guys, they need to win now for them.”
Augustus Gilchrist scored 16 points and Shaun Noriega had 12 for No. 15 seed South Florida (10-23), which beat Villanova on a last-second basket in the opening round of the tournament.
Any hopes of making it two straight were gone early.
Cincinnati led 24-22 with 4:05 left in the first half, thanks largely to Noriega’s outside shooting. Kilpatrick scored on a putback for the Bearcats, though, and Dixon added a pair of deep 3-pointers that extended their lead back to double digits.
Dixon added another basket right out of halftime, and Cincinnati methodically built its advantage to 54-35 with 11:54 remaining in the game. The Bearcats relied on the nation’s fourth-best scoring defense to hold off South Florida the rest of the way, never letting the lead slip fewer than 13 points while spending most of the half trying to push it over 20.
They finally did in the closing minutes.
“Their team came to play, they made shots, they were balanced,” said South Florida coach Stan Heath, whose squad was without starting point guard Anthony Crater in the second half. He hurt himself just before the halftime buzzer, though it was unclear exactly what happened.
“I don’t have the total answer where he is,” Heath said. “We’ll probably know a little bit more tonight or tomorrow. It’s a huge loss, you know? We have guys who are extremely valuable. That’s probably the one position where he’s playing 36 minutes a night.”
The outcome was as sweet for Cronin as it was sour for South Florida.
Cincinnati was in tatters when he arrived five years ago, but Cronin has won more games each successive season, and is now finally heading to the NCAA tournament.
He still hasn’t been embraced by some fans who believe Huggins never should have been forced out. The Bearcats have struggled to sell tickets despite their winning ways, often getting just as little respect from folks back home as they’ve gotten from the national media.
Cronin has noticed, too, and he hopes that will all change soon.
“We’ve rebuilt our program, it’s great for the fans,” Cronin said, “but to get the respect they deserve, they need to win in March.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)