By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HOUSTON - Jamaal Lucas provided the defense down the stretch and Jason Maxiell furnished the winning basket, but if it hadn't been for the work of reserve center Robert Whaley in the first half, neither would have been possible.
Whaley, who just a week ago said he sometimes wished he hadn't decided to attend the University of Cincinnati, scored a career-high 17 points and kept UC in contention in the first half while Maxiell was on the bench with three fouls and the Bearcats were struggling to score.
Cincinnati's James White (21) canšt hang onto a rebound as Houston's Marcus Oliver reaches for the ball.
Despite shooting just 32.1 percent from the field and getting outrebounded 44-36, No. 10 UC (16-3, 7-2 Conference USA) eked out a 54-51 victory over Houston (8-12, 2-7) Saturday at Hofheinz Pavilion.
"I'm just happy to win and get out of here," UC coach Bob Huggins said.
The victory enabled the Bearcats to snap a two-game losing streak, but it did little to make anyone think they've solved the problems that have dogged them during the past six games, three of which have been losses.
Still, if Whaley's play is an indication of things to come, it might be remembered as a watershed win for the team.
"I was pleased with what Rob gave us," Huggins said. "We're going to have to continue to refine things with him a little bit, but I told Rob when he comes in and works and has a great attitude, we can coach him."
To Huggins' credit, he didn't give up on Whaley after the junior expressed his frustration last week. Instead, he worked with Whaley after practice Thursday on his inside moves.
"He was telling me that one of my problems is I don't look at the rim when I catch the ball," said Whaley, who still missed 12 of 18 shots. "I should be looking at the rim. That kind of helped me out."
Whaley's play was crucial Saturday, because the rest of the Bearcats had such a difficult time finding the basket. Guard Tony Bobbitt scored just five points and missed seven of the eight shots he attempted. Kareem Johnson was 1-for-5, and Field Williams was 2-for-6.
What really hurt the Bearcats, though, was the absence of Maxiell, their leading scorer and rebounder, who got into early foul trouble for the second straight game and played only six minutes in the first half.
But he was there when the Bearcats needed him, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds. It was Maxiell's dunk of a Bobbitt shot with 1:22 to go that gave UC a 52-51 lead, after the team trailed by as many as five midway through the second half.
"It was a play that we ran for Tony," Maxiell said. "Tony put it up at the top of the key. My man got caught up, and when it came off the rim, I just did my job and rebounded it."
With 19.8 seconds left, Houston set up a shot for Andre Owens, who led the Cougars with 18 points. UC's Lucas locked up Owens, who missed a 15-foot jump shot with nine seconds left. Johnson rebounded for UC, and after Maxiell was fouled, he converted two free throws with 8.9 seconds left to give UC its 3-point lead.
Houston's Lanny Smith tossed up an errant 3-poin attempt as time expired with James White defending. But it was Whaley's play that had the Bearcats buzzing after the game.
"We've got to make Rob the player he's capable of being," Bobbitt said. "We can't let him slip. He carried the load. He's 6-10, 260. He can help us. Now I think you guys are going to see a new Robert Whaley, as well as the Bearcats."
Team rebounds - 2.
Team rebounds - 4.
3-pointers - UC 3-14 (White 0-1, F.Williams 1-4, N.Williams 1-4, Bobbitt 1-5), H 5-16 (Oliver 0-1, Owens 5-12, Smith 0-3). Technicals - H (Oliver). Officials - Sitton, Neve, Kissinger. Attendance - 4,268.
Bearcats barely escape
Hicks endures letdown after XU performance
Baby steps suit Xavier
Cage makes presence known as a starter
Same script, same result prepare UK for postseason
Big game still not enough for Hayes
RedHawks end recent trend of late losses
Coles puts on running shoes to fight cancer
Top 25: Stanford stays unbeaten
Norse fall to streaking Rivermen on road
2004 payroll down $11M
Busy offseason saw many catchers on the move
Johnson relishes all-star honor
NFL insider: Pats have winning formula
Dubious honor remains enjoyable for coaches
2000 Comets still stars in Mason
Princeton 70, Oak Hills 65 (OT)
Low-scoring tilt has Mustangs riding high
Saturday boys basketball
Saturday girls basketball
La Salle gets nod as No. 1 D-I seed
Moeller wins GCL to stake claim to city crown
Ernst: All 'A' Classic has grown into a huge success
Prep sports results, schedules
TOP O' THE SECOND
What's up with that?
A quick chat with ... Mike Mathis
Planning ahead: Can't-miss events
TMC teammates look up to 'Grandma' Warner
MORE SPORTS HEADLINES
Singh shares lead at Pebble Beach
All thumbs: The week's winners and losers
U.S. advances to Cup quarters against Sweden
Sports on TV, radio