PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) - No. 15 Cincinnati won a conference title for the first time since 2004, and coach Mick Cronin didn’t care that it was shared.
The Bearcats (26-5, 15-3) were picked to finish fourth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll, a league that currently has five teams ranked in the top 20.
Cincinnati clinched a share of the regular-season crown with 24 points from senior Sean Kilpatrick in a tough 70-66 win over Rutgers on Saturday. The Bearcats will be the top seed in the conference tournament.
“I am really proud of the guys,” Cronin said. “To be able to grind out a regular-season championship, 15-3 in this league is pretty strong.”
Two hours after beating Rutgers, Cincinnati settled for a share of the title when No. 11 Louisville routed No. 19 Connecticut 81-48.
Cronin didn’t seem to care.
“In my mind, we won a championship no matter what. Whether it is shared or not, you’re conference champs,” he said.
The tiebreaker based on the teams’ results against UConn, Memphis and SMU failed to determine the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament in Memphis, so a coin flip settled the question.
Before the Louisville-UConn game ended, Cronin said he likes Cardinals coach Rick Pitino so much, he could not root against him. His only regret was the coin toss was held at Louisville. No matter - the Bearcats still won it.
“I requested that coach Pitino and I play one game of liar’s poker,” Cronin quipped. “We used to do that all the time - for fun, obviously.”
Cronin was not upset that his team struggled against Rutgers, which has now lost 13 of 17 games and will be the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament. He said they were tired after an emotional win over Memphis on Thursday.
Kilpatrick, who didn’t score a basket less than six minutes remained in the first half, carried the team late. He converted a three-point play and drove the lane for a layup in the final 68 seconds as the Bearcats rallied from a point down late to win.
“I saw the (shot) clock going down and there was like six seconds left and I said: ‘You know what? If I get fouled, I get fouled, and then Coach isn’t going to be mad,’” Kilpatrick said.
Justin Jackson had given Cincinnati a 65-64 lead with 1:46 to play, scoring underneath after Kadeem Jack blocked his original shot in the paint.
“We have a couple of tremendous closers in Justin and S.K.,” Cronin said. “Justin’s putback was sheer will. He was just not going to be denied.”