- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - The first-place cushion that No. 15 Cincinnati enjoyed for most of the season has eroded. The Bearcats head into the final week needing two more wins to get the first American Athletic Conference title.

And that means getting their offense in order. Fast.

The Bearcats (24-5, 13-3) have lost three of their last five games, including each of the past two. They’re tied for first place with No. 11 Louisville (24-5, 13-3) with two games left.

Both have tough finishes. One stumble could decide it all.

“Playing for a conference championship in your last two games, that’s big,” coach Mick Cronin said before practice on Tuesday. “Then you go to the conference tournament that’s one-and-out, and the NCAA tournament is one-and-out.

“So you’ve got to be sharp this time of year or it’s going to cost you. There’s a lot on the line each night out.”

It’s likely the last time Cincinnati and Louisville - longtime rivals in various conferences - will compete against each other for a conference title. The Cardinals head to the ACC next season.

They split their season series, each winning on the other’s home court. Cincinnati finishes at home on Thursday against No. 20 Memphis and at Rutgers on Saturday. Louisville is at No. 18 Southern Methodist (23-6, 12-4) and at home against No. 19 Connecticut.

If both of the Ohio River rivals stumble, SMU could move in and take the title.

The Bearcats won 69-53 at Memphis on Jan. 11, part of a 15-game winning streak that vaulted them into the top 10. The rematch comes on the night when the Bearcats honor senior starters Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson.

Those three helped rebuild the program into a consistent NCAA tournament team, so it’ll be an emotional final game at home.

“I’m still kind of lost for words,” Kilpatrick said Tuesday. “It probably won’t hit me until after the game, maybe a little before when I’m crying a little bit.”

Kilpatrick will leave as the school’s second leading scorer, trailing only Oscar Robertson. He expects to see Cronin tear up at the final home game.

“With me and Justin leaving, yeah, hopefully,” Kilpatrick said. “I’ve never seen him cry like that. With us being his favorite guys, hopefully he will.”

Don’t count on it.

“I don’t get real nostalgic about it because the season’s not over,” Cronin said. “When SK and those guys come walking out, I’m planning on being with them for at least another month, I’m hoping.”

For that to happen, the Bearcats have to fix their offense. They’ve scored 57 or fewer points during their last three losses, going long stretches without making a field goal.

The two biggest problems: poor shooting and lousy ball handling. Cincinnati shot 35 percent, 29 percent and 27 percent from the field during the three losses, going a combined 15 for 64 from beyond the arc. They also turned the ball over 19, 13 and 20 times in those three games.

Their 33 turnovers in the last two are their most during a two-game span, with the 20 turnovers tying their season high.

“The common denominator in all three losses is turnovers,” Cronin said. “Our turnover situation has been horrific.”

The solution has been to intensify practices to get their offense ready. The Bearcats are accustomed to applying defensive pressure, but haven’t handled it all that well themselves.

“So we have got to practice against the the type of defense we saw against SMU, UConn and Louisville,” Cronin said. “And we’ve got to do a better job of simulating that type of defense when we play 5-on-5 offense in practice.

“Sometimes it’s too easy for our veteran guys to score against our younger guys in our practice sessions. So we’ve talked about that and we’ve made some moves to try to rectify that in practice, just so that it’s more realistic.”

The younger players also have talked about stepping up their game down the stretch.

“It’s something we’ve been working for all year long, and now we’re in control of our destiny and able to really do this,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s something the young guys have been really focusing on and thinking about.”


Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoekay

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