Alex Frank | Sports Director
He who chases two rabbits seldom catches one.
It’s rare for even champions to go undefeated as the pressure to not lose can overshadow the drive to a championship.
Tuesday night, the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team showed that all the jitters from the first game at newly-renovated Fifth-Third Arena were behind them.
They never trailed in their 73-51 win over North Carolina Central University, the first game for Cincinnati in the 2018 Emerald Coast Classic.
“I thought our effort and our energy on defense was excellent,” head coach Mick Cronin said. “I’m really happy with the way this game went. I was also surprised we were able to pull away from them the way we did. But I would give credit to our kids’ tremendous effort on the defensive end.”
The Bearcats consistently knocked down shots both in the paint and from the perimeter, shooting 58.5 percent from the game and making five out of 14 three-point attempts.
Keith Williams was the spark
There was a notable change to the starting lineup Tuesday night, and it was sophomore guard Keith Williams starting over senior guard Cane Broome.
Cronin’s decision paid off in a big way as the Brooklyn, New York native led all Bearcats scorers with 15 points on 7-12 shooting.
“The real reason he started, his effort in practice the last three days,” Cronin said. “He’s a guy he wants to do well so bad. He cares so much, it’s just finding him a comfort zone. He gets jittery at times. I thought as the game went on offensively, he got calmer and calmer and calmer as the game went on.”
Interesting how I constantly said last year that Broome was the spark for the Bearcats when they needed a boost offensively.
But Cronin did mention that he went with Williams as a bigger guard to help with defense and rebounding.
Williams pulled down four rebounds including three offensives on the night.
A close first half
The Bearcats led just 21-16 with 5:33 to go in the first half
But for those wondering why the game didn’t turn into a blowout quickly, it should be noted that North Carolina Central University has made three of the last five NCAA Tournaments including the last two.
“I knew that [North Carolina] Central would be ready to play tonight,” Cronin said. “They did not play up to [Coach Levell Moton’s] standards at Clemson. His team will probably be back in the NCAA Tournament.”
Cincinnati eventually pulled away courtesy of a 13-3 run to end the first 20 minutes to lead 34-21 at halftime, and they eventually extended that lead to as many as 29 midway through the final 20 minutes.
Trevon Scott and Nysier Brooks were a force in the frontcourt
For the Bearcats to be successful, these two players have to be strong on both ends of the court.
Scott was coming off an eight-point performance on 2-5 shooting against Ohio State to go along with six rebounds, but Cronin said at the postgame press conference that Scott was a way better basketball player than last Wednesday night.
“I feel like I played up to my capability putting the ball in the basket, but I didn’t play up to my capability rebounding,” Cronin said. “I had more rebounds against Ohio State, who was a better team. Everything else I feel like I played up to my potential.”
Tuesday night saw Scott shoot a perfect 6-6 from the field for a 12-point performance while Brooks pulled down seven rebounds while scoring five points.
Cronin also mentioned, though, that Scott’s three rebounds and Brooks’s zero offensive rebounds won’t get the job done in a conference game.
“I got to get them used to playing hard because they’re both cramping up,” Cronin said. “There’s a difference between being a backup and a starter, and I think they’re still on the road, on that path. They’re not there yet. It’s just a process, though.”
Defense had a bounce-back performance
The Bearcats held the Eagles to 51 points and a 36.2 percent shooting from the field, while outrebounding them 31-26 and only giving up 10 offensive rebounds.
“Really started with Justin Jenifer at the front of our attack defensively,” Cronin said. “Somebody’s got to set a tone for our team about what you stand for. It can be a guard that can set the tone for you defensively of what you’re going to stand for.”
Although he didn’t pull down a single defensive rebound, Jenifer did collect two steals on a night where the Bearcats scored 19 points off 13 takeaways.
“We had to come back and get back to what the Bearcats is really about, and defense first,” Jenifer said. “Defense will turn into offense. It’s just going to come like that for us.”
The Bearcats will be back in action Friday night against the Milwaukee Panthers out of the Horizon League. The game will get underway at 7 p.m. and will be televised by Fox Sports Ohio and ESPN3.