Sunday, February 29, 2004

Bearcats back on top in C-USA

Hard-fought win ties them with Memphis

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - After what happened Saturday, it's easy to envision University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins attempting to inspire a new group of players five years from now with a story about the time his 2003-04 team went to Charlotte and knocked off the 49ers to climb back into first place.

Charlotte's Martin Iti, center, fights for the ball with Cincinnati players Kareem Johnson (42) and Jason Maxiell (54) during the first half.
(AP photo)
He would talk about the way the Bearcats overcame an 8-0 disadvantage, about how they didn't quit even when Jason Maxiell picked up his third foul a minute into the second half, about how they stood up in the face of the most hostile crowd of the season and refused to back down.

It was that kind of day for the 15th-ranked Bearcats, who played as hard and as well as they have all season to knock off Charlotte 75-67 before a noisy, sellout crowd of 9,105 at Halton Arena.

After losing four of six games, the Bearcats have now won three in a row.

Coupled with Louisville's victory over Memphis earlier in the day, the win enabled UC (20-5 overall, 11-3 in Conference USA) to climb into a first-place tie with Memphis with two regular-season games remaining - at DePaul on Thursday and at home against Memphis next Saturday.

"We needed to win this one because we kind of felt like we let one slip away (to Charlotte) in Cincinnati," Huggins said. "You've got to really defend your home turf if you're going to win this league. That's what we've done so well over the years."

Charlotte (18-7, 10-4) began the day tied with UC for second in the conference, but now finds itself in a three-way tie for third with Alabama-Birmingham and DePaul.

The Bearcats got off to a terrible start. They trailed 8-0 after a Brendan Plavich 3-pointer with 16:49 to go and appeared to be on the verge of getting blown out.

"We knew they were going to come out with a lot of emotion," said UC forward James White, who had a career-high nine assists. "We basically just banded together and stayed focused through all of it. We did what we had to do."

The Bearcats were down by seven with 11:53 left in the half when Maxiell went to work, scoring 10 straight points to keep his team in the game, repeatedly beating the 49ers attempts to double team him by releasing his shot before the double-team could form or kicking the ball outside.

But just as Maxiell, who finished with a game-high 18 points, was heating up, he picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 6:34 to go.

No problem. Kareem Johnson, who had 14 points and nine rebounds, immediately picked up the slack with six points to keep UC within two at halftime.

"I've got to take my hat off to those two guys," said UC guard Tony Bobbitt. "They took the pressure off us."

The Bearcats took their first lead at 37-36, with 19:05 left in the game, fell behind again by six, then came roaring back one more time.

A Bobbitt 3-pointer with 5:52 to go gave UC a 64-60 lead and would be the Bearcats' final field goal of the day. Moments later, Johnson missed two free throws, but Maxiell grabbed a monster rebound, was fouled and made both free throws. Two more free throws by Bobbitt gave UC a 68-60 lead with 4:28 to go.

At that point, it appeared the Bearcats had the victory in hand, but a technical foul by White and a couple of turnovers led to some anxious moments for UC.

With proficient 3-point shooters like Plavich and Demon Brown on the floor for Charlotte, the Bearcats couldn't relax until the final horn sounded.

"We've got 21 seconds left and we're up six," Bobbitt said. "That means nothing to those guys."

But the Bearcats held on, closing out the victory with six straight free throws.

"I think we're on that road now," Bobbitt said. "We don't want to get knocked off. We're back tied for first, right?"



F. Williams384944230015
N. Williams16061223311
Team rebounds - 1.

Team rebounds - 0.

3-pointers - Cincinnati 5-14 (White 0-2, F. Williams 3-7, N. Williams 0-1, Bobbitt 1-3, Kirkland 1-1), Charlotte 6-23 (Basden 1-1, Plavich 4-13, Brown 1-8, Baldwin 0-1). Technicals - White. Officials - Tom O'Neil, Rick Crawford, Art McDonald. Attendance - 9,105.

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