By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DePaul guard LeVar Seals delivered the most painful blow of the day, but in the end it was Tony Bobbitt and the University of Cincinnati Bearcats who inflicted the most damaging shot.
No. 3 seed UC (24-6), behind 17 points from Bobbitt, who was named the tournament Most Valuable Player, defeated No. 1 seed DePaul 55-50 Saturday to win the Conference USA Tournament championship and the league's automatic NCAA Tournament bid before 13,787 fans at U.S. Bank Arena.
As far as the Bearcats were concerned, their victory broke the five-way tie that existed at the top of the league at the end of the regular season, and settled the issue of which team was the league's true champion.
"When we played them up there, they ruined our chance at an outright title," said UC reserve forward Eric Hicks, who had scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds. "We owed them some payback.
"Winning the conference tournament, to me, that makes us the conference champions."
The Bearcats, who were ranked No. 11 in the Ratings Percentage Index before the game, are expected to receive a No. 3 seed when the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced at 6 p.m. today.
DePaul (21-9) saw its six-game winning streak come to an end. UC has won four straight games and six of its last seven.
The Bearcats led by eight points with 8:22 to go when Bobbitt crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain after he was hit in the groin by Seals away from the ball.
Bobbitt was helped off the court, and Seals was ejected from the game.
With the Bearcats struggling offensively, the Blue Demons narrowed the UC lead to six points when Bobbitt, who returned with 5:20 remaining, buried a 3-pointer with 2:13 left to increase Cincinnati's lead to 50-41.
Moments later, after the Blue Demons cut UC's advantage back down to five, Bobbitt escaped the DePaul full-court pressure and dribbled downcourt for a layup that put the Bearcats up 52-45 with 39 seconds left, giving him the last word on a day when there was a lot of jawing on the court between both teams.
"It don't matter," Bobbitt said. "We got the win."
DePaul coach Dave Leitao said Seals' punch was uncalled for but also said there was so much talking going on that he worried early in the game that something might happen.
"If you're going to keep talking to somebody personally, it's going to cause a reaction," Leitao said. "Both teams did that. We fell victim to it and lost our composure."
Bobbitt agreed that there was more talking than usual during the game.
"They're not going to talk to us (without us saying) something back," Bobbitt said. "That's what we're known for, our toughness."
UC essentially won this game in the first half when its defense shut down the Blue Demons to take a 37-23 halftime lead.
The Bearcats' offense stalled in the second half. They were held scoreless until a Hicks dunk at the 13:46 mark, scored only two points in the first 11 minutes and managed only six field goals the entire second half, when they were held to 18 points.
But the Cincinnati defense, which was outstanding throughout this tournament, rose to the occasion.
UC held DePaul, which leads the league with 47.4 percent shooting from the field this season, to 35.3 percent. The Blue Demons made only one of 12 3-pointers and Drake Diener, who burned UC with 17 points in DePaul's 68-65 win over UC on March 4 last in Chicago, was held to seven points.
"We played more intelligently today," said UC coach Bob Huggins. "We played about as dumb up there (in a 68-65 loss at DePaul March 4) as I've ever had anybody play.
"In the end it might have helped us because it kind of grounded us again. They were great this week as far as listening. It's hard to listen to me sometimes but I think they did a great job."
Team rebounds - 5.
Team rebounds - 4.
3-pointers - UC 6-12 (Kirkland 0-2, F.Williams 2-4, Bobbitt 4-6), D 1-12 (Holland 1-3, Greer 0-1, Mejia 0-2, Diener 0-4, Seals 0-1). Technicals - UC 1 (Hicks), D 2 (Diener, Seals). Officials - Shaw, Olson, Higgins. Attendance - 13,787.
Knockout punch is Bearcats'
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