NEW YORK (AP) — Cincinnati didn’t spend much time celebrating its biggest win of the season. That’s because the Bearcats have one more game to go for their first Big East title.
Minutes after shooting their way to a 17-point lead and then holding on to beat No. 2 Syracuse 71-68 on Friday night and advance to their first Big East championship game, the Bearcats were already thinking about what could be.
“I walked in the locker room and the guys had written `We need to win one more’ on the board. I didn’t even have to write it,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
The fourth-seeded Bearcats (24-9) will meet seventh-seeded Louisville in Saturday night’s championship game at Madison Square Garden. The Cardinals beat third-seeded and 23rd-ranked Notre Dame 64-50.
To get there, they ended the 11-game winning streak of the top-seeded Orange (31-2). They did it with an incredible shooting performance over the opening 14 minutes of the game when they took a 17-point lead, and then by holding on as Syracuse was able to get within one point in the final seconds.
“It’s a huge win for our program,” Cronin said. “I think what you’ve got to realize in college basketball is you’ve got to allow teams the course of the season, some teams get better.”
Now a program that made headlines early in the season for a brawl against intra-city rival Xavier and sunk as low as losing at home to Presbyterian, has its seventh win over a ranked team this season, the most in the country.
“No, not at first, but as the season went on, yeah,” forward Yancy Gates said of thinking about playing for the conference title.
Gates was one of four Cincinnati players suspended for the December fight with Xavier. He missed six games for throwing a blindside punch in the fracas. That all seems a long time ago.
Gates and Sean Kilpatrick both had 18 points for Cincinnati, which rebounded from one of its worst 3-point efforts in the quarterfinals against Georgetown with one of its best against Syracuse.
“Over the course of the entire season, we lead the Big East in 3-point point field goals made. We’ve made more 3s than anybody in the Big East,” Cronin said. “We’re standing there wide open. Last night, we were 2 for 21. We shot seven that went in and out. We’ve got guys that can make shots, so law of averages catches up.”
Dion Waiters had 28 points for Syracuse, which was able to close within 69-68 with 5.4 seconds left when he made two free throws — and the second one he was trying to miss. Justin Jackson was all alone when he dunked with 1 second left for a three-point lead and Waiters’ desperation heave from beyond midcourt was off at the buzzer.
The loss shouldn’t hurt the Orange’s chances of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it did keep them from getting a chance to play for a sixth Big East title and first since 2006.
“Cincinnati moved the ball better than we did. They got some real good looks. They made eight 3s in the first half, and we didn’t get anything going offensively in the first half. I was shocked that we were within 12,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We just couldn’t get anything going. We’d get close a couple times.
“And then late, Dion made a couple really difficult 3s, and we got it to two and we had an opportunity, and we just couldn’t make a play there. We wanted Dion to try to miss the second one, but he’s such a good shooter, he couldn’t do that.”
Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon both had 11 for the Bearcats, who came into the Big East tournament with their at-large NCAA berth still up for debate. That’s no longer true with the double-overtime quarterfinal win over No. 13 Georgetown and the victory over Syracuse in their first-ever semifinal appearance.
The Bearcats shredded Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone from the start, making six of their first seven 3-point attempts. They made eight of their first 10 shots from beyond the arc in taking a 34-17 lead with 5:43 left in the first half, with Kilpatrick going 4 of 4. That was one point shy of Syracuse’s biggest deficit this season, and that came at Notre Dame in its only loss. It was only the third time this season the Orange trailed by double figures.
The sellout crowd of 20,057, which was wearing a lot of orange, was stunned as Syracuse shot 31 percent in the first half (9 of 29), while the Bearcats went 13 of 26 and had an assist on all but one of the field goals. A modest 6-1 run to close the half had Syracuse within 35-23.
The crowd came alive as the Orange chipped away at the lead. They became the team with the touch from 3-point range, shooting 9 of 17 in the second half while Cincinnati missed its first six 3s. Kilpatrick made the Bearcats’ only 3s of the second half in nine attempts, the second from the left corner as the shot clock ran out that made it 65-55 with 1:47 to play.
“Cashmere just told me to stay in the corner, and then Coach was telling me to go to the corner because Kris Joseph, he was going to come up and play Cash because Cash was hot, as well, throughout the game,” Kilpatrick said “Once he played Cash, I was just wide open, so it was a good thing that Cash caught me.”
The Orange, though, weren’t done.
Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Waiters all made a 3 in the final 37 seconds. Waiters’ 3 made it 68-66 with 17 seconds to play.
JaQuon Parker made one of two free throws with 15.6 seconds left. Waiters was fouled before he could get off a possible tying 3-pointer. He made the first and when the second went through the net, he turned to the Syracuse bench with slumped shoulders as he apparently tried to miss it to give the Orange one last chance.
“No matter who you’re playing, the top half of our league, the game is never over,” Cronin said. “It’s human nature to flinch a little bit when they come. Obviously it’s like a home game for them, which makes the win even sweeter for us. But we hesitated for a little bit and didn’t attack their pressure. Once we started attacking their pressure, we were able to get it back to a 10-point lead.
“I kept telling the guys in the timeouts, this is going to be a crazy ending and we’re going to win by more than 10 because we got to break the press. I have seen them play. When they get behind, they’re going to come. They’re not going to sit back in that zone. They’re going to come. So we did a pretty good job after our initial hesitation of attacking their pressure.”
It was the second straight year Syracuse lost in the semifinals. Connecticut beat the Orange 76-71 in overtime last season on its way to the tournament title.
“We’ve won 31 games, and we’ve proven what we can do and we’ve got to get back and we have to play a little better from the beginning,” Boeheim said. “Most national championships, not all, but a lot of them, have been won by teams that lose in their conference tournament, including us. So as much as we want to win this tournament, the tournament that starts next week is the only one that matters. Nothing else matters anymore in college basketball.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)