CINCINNATI – South Florida’s nickname may be the Bulls, but against Cincinnati they looked more like a deer – staring directly into the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck.And the inevitable collision wasn’t pretty.
“We just wanted this first game with everyone watching (to) send a message,” Cincinnati guard Leonard Stokes said. “I think we did that tonight.”
And that message was heard loud and clear.
Heavy tournament favorite Cincinnati dismantled the Bulls 79-57 Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA Tournament, possibly ending South Florida’s season in the process.
“There’s a reason Cincinnati’s the No. 1 seed and the fourth-ranked team in the country,” coach Seth Greenberg said.
“It’s not by happenstance; it’s because they play extremely hard and very purposefully. I thought they were magnificent this evening.”
The trouble started early and continued often as the Bearcats dominated USF in every facet of the game.
Things were well in hand following a 19-4 Cincinnati run to start the game and virtually over just past the midway point of the first half. The Bearcats went ahead 38-17 on a layup by Steve Logan, and Cincinnati’s lead didn’t dip below the 20-point mark until Brian Swift hit a three-pointer with 1:27 left in the game.
“I think it’s a good lesson for coaches and players,” Greenberg said. “They compete every possession, and if you aspire to get to that level, that’s what you need to do.”
Cincinnati shot 55 percent from the floor in the first half, but it seemed more like 95. When the Bearcats did miss, there were three white jerseys there to wipe the glass. Cincinnati outrebounded USF 21-13 in the first half, grabbing seven offensive boards in the process.
“They have a chance, because of how hard they play, to be the No. 1 seed (in the NCAA Tournament) and win the National Championship,” Greenberg said. “Not because they have a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, but probably because they have as good a team as there is in the country.”
And about the only thing more impressive than the Bearcats’ offense was their defense. Cincinnati harassed the Bulls relentlessly, forcing bad shot after worse shot. The Bearcats held USF to 31 percent from the floor, forced 10 first-half turnovers, committed four steals and blocked three shots. For the half, Cincinnati scored 12 points off turnovers, compared to the Bulls’ two.
“They were just tougher than us, plain and simple,” Greenberg said.
How bad was it? Cincinnati reeled off runs of 11-0 or better two times and twice had 6-0 runs – in the first half alone. The Bearcats’ lead ballooned to as much as 29 in the first half and 30 twice in the second.
“There’s no excuse,” B.B. Waldon said. “We just didn’t come out and match their intensity.”
Thanks to the colossal lead, Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins was afforded the opportunity to rest his starters for much of the second half in order to keep them fresh. In a setting where the Bearcats will have to win two more games in two days to capture the C-USA Tournament, rest is paramount.
“I think it’s obvious that if they get a little more rest, they should be fresher (for Friday’s game),” Huggins said. “This is probably the least (Logan) has played all year. It’s probably going to be good for him. He plays a lot of minutes.”
Jackson led all scorers with 21 while Waldon finished with 10. Both seniors grabbed a team-high seven rebounds. Logan led three Bearcats in double-digits with 15 points.
South Florida now must play the waiting game. National Invitational Tournament bids will be announced Sunday, and with a 19-12 record, the Bulls’ future lies in the hands of the selection committee.
“I expect us to continue to play this season,” Greenberg said. “If we don’t get that opportunity, it will be very disappointing. Through all we’ve been through, we’ve had a good season and beat some good teams.”