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Strong finish puts No. 25 Cincinnati in mix

- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2011

CINCINNATI (AP) - Power forward Yancy Gates was feuding with the coach and hardly getting onto the court. Cincinnati appeared headed for another late-season meltdown that would keep it out of the NCAA tournament again.

But everything changed in a six-game span.

The Bearcats (24-7, 11-7 Big East) have won five of their last six, knocking off Louisville, Connecticut and Georgetown twice. They put themselves in line for their first NCAA tournament appearance in six years and moved back into the rankings at No. 25 on Monday.

In three weeks, their season did a 180-degree turnaround.

"Since that moment," coach Mick Cronin said, "they've really dug in and played great,"

The low point was a 59-57 loss at home to St. John's on Feb. 13, a game remembered for what happened on the bench. Unhappy with Gates' lack of effort, Cronin sat him down after he played only one minute in the second half. The Bearcats' best front-line player sat at the end of the bench the rest of the game, scowling and complaining.

It became the turning point.

Gates has played his way back into the starting lineup and the Bearcats have taken off, led by full-court defensive pressure that set up their surge. The Bearcats have the stingiest defense in the conference, one that got going full-throttle during the last six games.

"We're shutting teams down," Cronin said. "That's been a transition for this team, being able to shut down ranked opponents."

The entire program has gone through a transition this month.

The Bearcats won their first 15 games while playing one of the nation's easiest schedules, one that didn't get them much notice. Their 13,000-seat arena was half-empty for most games. When the Big East schedule started, the Bearcats were overmatched.

A 63-54 home win over Louisville on Feb. 16 _ only three days after the St. John's game _ became a springboard. With each game, the Bearcats developed more of an edge.

"That's been a challenge with me all year," Cronin said. "My goal with this team was to get them to believe in themselves. I think you're seeing that now. They're really starting to believe in what they're capable of.

"Getting those quality wins was big. People say, 'Man, he's just got to believe in himself.' But it's hard to believe in yourself. It's like that golfer _ when he wins that first tournament, then he believes he can win. For us, beating Louisville at home gave us a lot of confidence."

Cronin and Gates have patched things up. Gates had 13 points and made all 10 free throws during a win over Georgetown on Saturday _ quite a change for the 54 percent free-throw shooter.

"I'm hot," Gates said. "That's something I've been working on after practice. It's starting to pay off."

The Bearcats also have started winning back fans. Their last two home games were played before near-capacity crowds that got very loud. Students and fans had largely given up on the program after coach Bob Huggins left _ Cincinnati has had only two capacity crowds in the last two years.

"It matters," Cronin said. "I was thanking them, trying to get them to come back next year, especially our students."

Cincinnati hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2005, their last season under Huggins. The Bearcats had a losing Big East record every season until this one. They've got a No. 7 seed and a first-round bye before facing either Villanova or South Florida on Tuesday.

Cronin has repeatedly complained about the lack of national attention during the Bearcats' strong finish. He sees the Big East tournament as a chance to change it.

"There's certain teams in our league that get more media coverage and hype than other teams," he said. "We're gaining respect with the season we've had this year. That's another reason for us to go up there and play with a chip on our shoulder."

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