The most consistent quality of a good basketball team is a strong defense. The Cincinnati Bearcats have climbed into the nation's top 10 with an oxygen-depleting defense that, entering Saturday's game at FedExForum, allows opponents merely 56.6 points per game. The 9th-ranked Bearcats held Memphis eight points under that average, allowing the Tigers only 14 field goals and, more telling, just four assists. You cannot pass the ball through a defender. Memphis learned this lesson for a second time this season as Cincinnati improved to 19-2 and a perfect 8-0 in the American Athletic Conference.
"We played more aggressive and assertive in the second half," said Tiger point guard Jeremiah Martin
, who led Memphis with 20 points exactly a week after a violent fall injured his right hip in a loss at Tulsa. "We stopped them 11 out of 12 [possessions during one stretch], but we have to do even more to beat a team like this." The loss is only the second the Tigers have suffered this season when Martin scores 20 points.
Jeremiah Martin looking for a passing lane.
Cincinnati held the Tigers to 29-percent shooting in taking a 34-21 lead at halftime, twenty minutes in which Memphis missed seven of eight attempts from three-point range. An 11-2 run over the first eight minutes of the second half closed the margin to four points (36-32), capped by senior forward Jimario Rivers's
first three-pointer of the season. (Another highlight may be the Tigers' play-of-the-year to date: junior Kyvon Davenport
pulled down a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the floor, and dunked the ball through a crowd of Cincinnati defenders to make the score 34-28.)
The Bearcats connected on four three-pointers over a three-minute stretch to expand the lead back to double-digits (48-34), plenty to cruise over the game's final eight minutes. The Tigers' shooting percentage of 31.1 percent is their lowest this season and wasn't helped by missing 12 of 29 shots from the free-throw line. (Cincinnati committed 27 fouls.)
As for silver linings, Memphis played Cincinnati all but even (28-27 Bearcats) in the second half, not quite a month after losing to the same team by 34 points on the road. The largest crowd of the Tigers' season to date — 12,223 announced — played a role in closing the gap, at least according to two of the principals.
"We really appreciate the crowd," said Tiger coach Tubby Smith. "They did a fantastic job, and really helped our guys raise their intensity. We bounced back and competed in the second half."
"It was kinda new to us," added Martin. "We have our loyal fans, but the atmosphere [tonight], they helped us. It's like having a sixth guy on the floor."
Senior forward Gary Clark led Cincinnati with 18 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Jacob Evans added 14. Kareem Brewton
came off the bench and scored 10 points in 36 minutes for Memphis. (Starter Raynere Thornton played only six minutes and, according to Smith, was partly affected by a recent death in his family.)
The Tigers dropped to 13-8 with the loss and are now 4-4 in AAC play.
"If we made free throws, and cut back on turnovers against one of the best defensive teams in the country, we're capable," said Smith. "We just need to play more as a team. When you see only four assists, you know we're not sharing the ball like we should. We're not catching it, ready to shoot. But a lot of that has to do with Cincinnati and how hard they played."
"We can't kill ourselves over losses," added Martin. "Be positive. Get ready for South Florida." The Tigers travel to Tampa for their next game where they'll play USF Wednesday.