Jeff Jacobs: Cincinnati's Kilpatrick 'Out-Bazzes' Shabazz

CINCINNATI — Not saying Sean Kilpatrick has been around forever, but, man, didn't he share the backcourt with Oscar Robertson on the 1960 Cincinnati team?

OK, OK, Kilpatrick is 24, not 75, but on a night like this you get a real idea what kind of damage strength, length and maturity can do for a guard in a college basketball game.

To make it short, Kilpatrick imposed his will on No. 7 Cincinnati's 63-58 victory over No. 22 UConn at Fifth Third Arena.

To make it even shorter, Kilpatrick out-Bazzed Shabazz.

"The mark of a great player," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said, "is rising to the occasion and he has the ability to do that."

How many times have we seen UConn down in the first half with Napier looking pedestrian, even somnambulant? And then how many times have seen Shabazz take over a game and lead UConn to another heart-pounding win?

That was Kilpatrick on this cold Thursday night in early February.

"In the second half, they established themselves in the paint," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "Justin Jackson and Kilpatrick just took over the game. He had 17 [of his 26 points] in the second half, 12 rebounds, six assists, just a helluva performance by him."

Ollie sounded a little hoarse after the Huskies' fifth loss of the season. That may have been, in part, because he raised the decibel count in the locker room afterward. We're not saying he made paint peel, but you could hear him through cracks in the concrete.

"They just took it to us in the inside, 34 points in the paint," Ollie said. "That's the game."

The Huskies, especially Lasan Kromah, did a nice job of attacking the rim in a first half when they took a 31-26 lead. But they stopped moving the ball in the second half, Ollie said, stuck too much to one side and then bailed with three-point attempts.

"We stopped ourselves," Ollie said. "We can't settle. I thought we settled tonight."

That was the coach's mantra after this one. They settled. Kilpatrick didn't settle.

"Give credit to them, they made game-winning plays," Ollie said. "They got stops when they needed stops and Kilpatrick stepped up."

Settling meant 5-for-21 from three-point land. Napier hit his first three, missed 10 of his next 11, including one in the final minute, and needed 19 shots to get his 16 points.

UConn still led by eight with 15 minutes left, but the Bearcats, sixth in the nation in offensive rebounds and with only two at halftime, began to impose their will. And when Jackson blocked Kromah's shot and Kilpatrick leaked out to score off the fastbreak to make it 46-43 and force Ollie to call a timeout amid the intense crowd noise, you got the feeling the closing minutes might not go well.

UConn certainly didn't play lousy. And when you factor in that DeAndre Daniels missed the game with back spasms, there are explanations. But Ollie, snippy with the media after this one, was in no mood for excuses.

"We can't settle," Ollie said. "We've got to get to the rim. We can't shoot 30-footers. Hopefully, [Napier] keeps learning. You've got to get to the rim. You've got to put the onus on the ref in that situation."

The Huskies had a season-low six assists.

"I'm proud of their effort, but Bazz going 2-for-12 from the three-point line, that's not going to happen," Ollie said. "And it's still a two-point game. We've got to get better …

"The defense was terrible. Second half it was bad."

The Bearcats are 11-0 in the AAC. The Bearcats have won 15 in a row. They were picked fourth in the AAC. They're sure playing like the best team in this hybrid league.

Give Mick Cronin credit. Since he took over as head coach in 2006 — one year after the school left Conference USA — Cincinnati has gone through three presidents, three athletic directors, four football coaches and two conferences. He has built a winning program and has shown some fortitude.

Evidence? After Kilpatrick averaged nearly 30 points at White Plains High in New York, Cronin redshirted him.

"I still remember the day like it was yesterday," Kilpatrick told Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo.com at the beginning of this season. "I was like, 'What? You want me to redshirt? Are you crazy?' I felt as if I was ready, but Coach Cronin said, 'SK, trust me.' And when he said that, I told him I'd go with what he was saying. If I didn't trust him, I wouldn't have been here."

And at 24, he's most definitely here. Asked afterward if there is any doubt Kilpatrick is conference player of the year, Cronin was careful.

"There's a lot of ball still to be played, guys," Cronin said. "I think that Sean Kilpatrick should be a candidate for the Wooden Award, but I'm a little biased. I don't think that's even a question. I think if his team wins the conference, at the end of the day, Shabazz, Russ Smith and Sean are the three guys. And if we win the league, obviously he'll win the award."

At 6-4, 210, Kilpatrick shot 8-for-15, including 5-for-8 on threes, and did a lot of the heavy lifting around the rim, too, with his career-high dozen rebounds.

"We've talked about his professional career and his shot selection is a big thing," Cronin said. "I have told pro scouts not to pay attention to his shot selection, because at times I need him to take some tough shots. I also tell them there is a former Bearcat that used to take tough shots and was a great player. That is Nick Van Exel. He has a fearless attitude and is a great player."

The students started chanting "MVP!" near the end of the game. It got pretty heady.

"I was so locked in trying to make the free throws because I'd missed two before that," Kilpatrick said. "That kind of boggled me a little bit, because I don't usually miss at the line. I was able to knock those two down [with four seconds left]. I don't look at myself as an MVP, my whole team is an MVP."

"They ran a lot of plays for him, a lot of screens, he had a lot of open shots," Napier said. "He definitely played well in the second half."

Sitting at his regular courtside seat, Robertson didn't mind telling Kilpatrick to light up the night.

"When Titus [Rubles] was shooting, he kept giving me the signal to shoot. I told him to relax. We got it, just relax. But it's good to have legends here like he and Pete Rose."

Napier could never relax on this night.

"I didn't play good basketball," he said. "I had a bad shooting night. They definitely played good defense. They were getting away with a lot of cheap fouling. Sometimes you've got to deal with it. I just couldn't make a shot.

"When you missed the shots you're supposed to be making, in turn it makes it look like you're settling. I definitely was. Coach is definitely right. I've got to do a better job of getting to the basket. I was getting to the basket and getting no calls, so I was kind of in between. I should have put it in the ref's hands."

Settled. Ollie said it once. He said it 10 times. Kilpatrick didn't settle. He won this matchup of top guards.

"I'm just playing to win," Kirkpatrick said. "I don't care about points. Leaders don't compete against the best players and try their hardest to outscore them. The only score that matters is the final score."

And on this night, it was 63-58 Cincinnati.

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