Why Cincinnati’s win over UCF was the most impressive and important win of the season

The game felt like it was headed for an ending that Cincinnati fans know all too well. Cincinnati led by as much as nine points in the second half, including a five-point lead with a minute left, and quickly found themselves with 71 points in the away game against UCF. After an embarrassing meltdown in East Carolina a few days ago, the Bearcats were flirting with a sequel on Sunday thanks to two last-minute turnovers that helped the Knights equalize.

But what seemed destined for another meltdown was instead saved by an elegantly rolled David DeJulius runner in the lane to beat the final buzzer, giving Cincinnati a much-needed 73-71 win and its first Quadrant 1 win .

Head Coach Wes Miller and the Bearcats followed up the worst loss of the season with the most important win of the season, not just because of the Quad 1 recovery boost and maintaining a top-five seed in the AAC ratings, but because of what it meant the collective psyche of the team and the fan base.

A few thoughts on how Cincinnati has held out and what it means heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.

DeJulius delivers

Miller has said multiple times that this team goes like DeJulius. Sunday’s game winner was an exaggerated example of this, but the supersenior was crucial, holding all along with 16 points (5 of 11 from the field, 6 of 6 from the free throw line) and five rebounds and eight assists. It was his 13th straight game with at least five assists, the longest active streak in the country, and he’s averaged 7.4 assists over that span. Cincinnati needed DeJulius to become more of a host and game manager throughout conference play, and he has embraced that role, particularly as a deadly pick-and-roll partner with Viktor Lakhin and Sunday’s Ody Oguama.

The Bearcats continue to desperately need DeJulius’ chances, so Miller called a timeout with 10 seconds left and created an isolation scenario with the ball in DeJulius’ hands. And unlike the Feb. 7 disaster in Tulane, when DeJulius missed a step-back 3 pointer on the buzzer to send the game into a futile overtime, he got his defenseman past the arc with a slight hesitation off balance before he shot the ball towards the free throw line and floating through the net.

Oguama and Ezikpe take over the gap

Cincinnati has looked like a shell on its own for much of the time since Lakhin fell with an ankle injury in that loss to Tulane. It’s understandable given how good he’s been this season, but it’s also been debilitating for a team that lacked post depth from the start.

Lakhin’s absence has put a lot on the broad but fickle shoulders of Oguama and Kalu Ezikpe in recent weeks. Oguama has earned a starting spot this season, but he works best as a supplemental role. Ezikpe, who is buried on the bench in-game outside of the conference, has made significant strides to get back into the rotation and play his part. Asking this duo to replace Lakhin is a lot to ask, but the two were massive against UCF, with Oguama scoring 15 points (all seven of his shots) and four rebounds and Ezikpe adding 12 points and six rebounds. They also combined to help limit star UCF freshman Taylor Hendricks to 12 points and four rebounds on 4-of-10 from the floor.

Oguama particularly thrived in the pick-and-roll with DeJulius assisting on three of Oguama’s four dunks, including two in the last three minutes. The Bearcats hope to get Lakhin back against Temple on Wednesday, but Oguama and Ezikpe filled in admirably on Sunday.

A win with a new look

UC managed to turn 27 percent shots from 3-point range into an impressive performance. Cincinnati attempted just 15 3-pointers against UCF, the team’s fewest singles games this season. The Bearcats also hit 25 two-point field goals, their most all year against a conference opponent, and attempted as many free throws (15) as 3 points for the third time all season. They dominated points in the paint (40 to 28) and snagged 11 offensive rebounds on 24 misses (three courtesy of Jeremiah Davenport) for 15 second chance points.

Miller relied more on his bench in the early days and helped keep an already injury-plagued second-half rotation a little fresher. Cincinnati has also slowed down the pace, matching Houston’s road loss for fewest possessions against an AAC opponent this season, according to KenPom. The team paid the price at times, with a series of the atypical 15 turnovers as a result of trying to commit more semi-judicial crimes. But in the end the plan worked. Taking to the streets outnumbered against a top-flight opponent, the Bearcats found another route to victory.

It wasn’t always Sterling. The late turnovers unnecessarily added to the drama, and the defense remains a work-in-progress without Lakhin patrolling the paint, although slowing the pace helped soften the score. And after Cincinnati was dominated on the glass by ECU, Cincinnati passed the Knights 31-24.

Miller drew some valid criticism for how he handled the missed leads against Tulane and ECU, but he deserves credit for how he adjusted the game plan against UCF and how his players executed it. The goal of this season is progress. Sunday’s result and how the Bearcats fared was a positive sign.

What’s next?

The win cemented Cincinnati’s grip on a top-five spot in conference standings, which would give the Bearcats (18-10, 9-6 AAC) a bye in the first round of the AAC tournament. Wichita State (currently sixth, 7-7) has four regular season games left including Memphis, Tulane and Houston. UCF (currently seventh at 6-8) also has four left to play, meaning Cincinnati could win 1-2 against Temple, Memphis and SMU and likely hold fifth place.

As a side note, the belief that UC would be better off with the sixth seed because he’s staying away from Houston until the championship is foolish. If this team somehow pulls off a miracle run in Fort Worth, they have a much better chance of winning three games in three days than four in four. And if the assumption is that Houston will have to tee it off at some point anyway, it probably has a better chance of doing so before a marquee title shot.

Aside from the standings, Sunday’s win boosts Cincinnati’s chances of a NIT call-up and, more importantly, wards off the looming potential of a second straight late-season collapse, at least for another day. The Bearcats retreated from the edge of a cliff in Orlando. It may be a small win in the grand scheme of things, but progress always begins with small wins. And it avoided a soul-crushing loss in the process.

(Photo by David DeJulius: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

https://theathletic.com/4232053/2023/02/20/david-dejulius-cincinnati-ucf/ Why Cincinnati’s win over UCF was the most impressive and important win of the season

Russell Falcon

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