CINCINNATI — The highest-ranked college basketball team in Ohio is a cornerstone of stability on a campus where athletic news customarily involves change.
Cincinnati lived up to its No. 7 ranking, the team’s highest in 10 years, and extended its winning streak to 15 games with a resilient 63-58 victory last night over No. 22 Connecticut.
On a day when UC named a new athletic director, a Fifth Third Arena crowd of 12,432 saw the Bearcats (22-2) show why they entered the top 10 of the Associated Press poll this week. UC exuded determination while trailing by 10 in the first half, by five at halftime, and by eight with 15 minutes left before outscoring the Huskies 16-10 in the final 5:21.
“Right now we have a tremendous team ego,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “Everybody is wrapped up in getting a win. No one is into individual (statistics). If we stay that way, we’ll continue to win.”
The win over Connecticut (17-5, 5-4) improved Cincinnati to 11-0 in the American Athletic Conference for a 21/2-game lead over second-place Louisville, which lost at home to the Bearcats and still must play at Cincinnati.
Cincinnati’s 17th consecutive home win also showed why Sean Kilpatrick, a 24-year-old, fifth-year senior, is considered the front-runner to be named the league’s best player. He had 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists while playing all 40 minutes, which prompted Cronin to say he should be a candidate for national player of the year.
“I’m just doing my job,” Kilpatrick said.
Cincinnati held Connecticut to 18 points below its scoring average and 32-percent shooting in the second half as the Bearcats received clutch play from senior forward Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. The steady leadership of UC’s three senior starters contrasts with the near-constant turnover at the school in recent years, which continued yesterday.
Mike Bohn was announced as Cincinnati’s athletic director two hours before tip-off. The former Colorado athletic director came to Cincinnati to replace Whit Babcock, who resigned Jan. 24 after 27 months at the school. Since 2006, Cincinnati has had three presidents, three athletic directors, four football coaches and two conferences. The Bearcats’ one constant has been Cronin, a Cincinnati native in his seventh season as coach of his alma mater.
Cronin was given yet another new boss yesterday because Babcock left for Virginia Tech, a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the nation’s five most powerful leagues.
Cincinnati’s change in athletic directors comes at a time when the school is considering renovating Fifth Third Arena while it is already putting $86 million into updating on-campus Nippert Stadium, where the Bearcats play football.
Facility renovations are part of UC’s plan to attract an offer to join a power league, which the Bearcats were part of until the Big East remade itself in December 2012. The new Big East, now built around Catholic nonfootball schools, didn’t extend an offer to UC and instead gave membership to the Bearcats’ crosstown rival, Xavier.
League reshuffling left Cincinnati this year in the AAC, but the Bearcats trudge on, just as they did last night while trailing Connecticut for a stretch of 22 minutes.
“It’s all about keep on grinding, doing what you do, and you’ll come out in the end,” Jackson said. “The only score that matters is at the end.”
Cincinnati hasn’t lost since Dec. 14 when the Bearcats lost 64-47 to Xavier, and they are off to their best start since their 2001-02 team went 26-2 on the way to a 31-4 record.
“We’re on a mission,” Kilpatrick said.