The Cincinnati Bearcats (8-2, 0-0 BIG EAST) defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-4, 0-0 SEC) Thursday night by a score of 75-63 at U.S. Bank Arena. The victory improved the Bearcats record to six games over .500, and gave the BIG EAST its first win the 2008 SEC/BIG EAST Invitational.
The Bearcats and Bulldogs played a tightly contested game through most of the first half, but the Bearcats exploded over the final 5 minutes of the half, finishing on an 18-2 run. The Bearcats used the run to take an 18 point lead into the break, a lead which they never relinquished en route to a 12 point win.
The Bearcats first half of play was exceptional, and Coach Mick Cronin says it was the best half of basketball his team has played all year on both ends of the court.
"No question," said Cronin. "On both ends. Defense, rebounding, taking care of the ball, 14 assists, only 5 turnovers. The number of deflections speaks to our defensive energy, and the number of assists speaks to the way we passed the ball."
The Bearcats got solid performances from numerous players tonight, but it was the trio of Deonta Vaughn, Yancy Gates, and Dion Dixon who kept the Bearcats going.
Vaughn finished with 16 points, 6 assists, and a very impressive 7 rebounds, while Gates poured in 12 points and 9 rebounds. v
Vaughn says the offense they had in the first half is what the team is striving for all season long.
"Yeah, that's what we are striving for," said Vaughn. We didn't expect them to go into a zone so early, so once we got the ball down low to Yancy it opened up some big shots for us on the outside."
Dion Dixon also contributed well on the offensive end, scoring 14 points. But it was his defensive effort that stood out tonight. Head Coach Mick Cronin says he has been very impressed with the maturity that Dixon has shown so far in his first collegiate season. He also mentioned Yancy Gates, and the progress he has made.
"We had two freshman starters out there (Gates and Dixon)," Cronin. "The combined for 26 points, and they only had 2 turnovers. Those guys are talented."
The Bearcats never relinquished their halftime lead, but that doesn't mean they didn't feel any pressure. At one point during the second half, the Bulldogs cut the lead to just seven, and the Bearcats were experiencing some serious problems with the man-to-man defense of Mississippi State.
As a young team, finishing games is something Coach Cronin says needs to be addressed.
"The question for us as a young team is that we have to learn how to duplicate that effort over 40 minutes," said Cronin. "Sometimes it's very obvious that we haven't been playing together very long."
Even though you never want to see the opposition make a run, Coach Cronin did acknowledge that he was happy with his team's ability to withstand the pressure and not allow the other team to maintain momentum.
"It was great for my blood pressure," Cronin said with a smile. "I was very happy with the way our guys responded, because really Deonta didn't really have it going tonight. We got of that funk when Larry Davis hits a three on a pass from Steve Toyloy, Dixon took his time and made the big three, and Toyloy had the nice finish inside."
The Bearcats will no doubt celebrate a hard fought win over a major program, but they will need to immediately turn their focus on improving before their next contest on Saturday. With against Memphis looming, they will need to work extremely hard over the next couple of weeks and throughout the season.