CINCINNATI (TICKER) —Leonard Stokes and Tony Bobbitt provided the fireworks long before Rick Pitino blew up.
Sparked by Stokes and Bobbitt, Cincinnati took a major step at securing an NCAA Tournament bid with a 101-80 Conference USA rout of third-ranked Louisville.
Entering the contest with five losses in their last six games and trying to avoid consecutive home defeats for the first time in the 14-year history of the Shoemaker Center, the Bearcats (15-8, 7-5 C-USA American) responded with a record-setting performance.
“We had a really good practice yesterday and it showed today,” Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said. “We have to get to the point where we bring it every game.”
Stokes and Bobbitt led the charge. Stokes played aggressive on both ends of the floor and finished with a season-high 31 points while Bobbitt added 25, making five 3-pointers.
“Leonard Stokes usually gets good shots, the difference today was that he made them,” Huggins said. “It’s easy to be assertive (on the court) when you make shots.”
In a 77-71 loss at Louisville on January 5, Stokes managed just 13 points on 3-of-14 shooting. Bobbitt was not a member of the Bearcats at the time after briefly quitting the team.
Paced by Stokes and Bobbitt, the Bearcats dominated the entire way, reaching 100 points in a game for the first time against Louisville.
With his team headed for its second straight and third loss in four games, Cardinals coach Pitino was ejected from the contest after picking up two technical fouls with 11:02 remaining in the contest.
Pitino seemed to have some reason for complaining about the officiating. Cincinnati made 42-of-58 free throws while Louisville went a woeful 14-of-34 at the line.
“They outplayed us tonight,” Pitino said. “That’s an understatement. They applied great defensive pressure and took us out of our game.”
With Pitino out, assistant Mick Cronin took over the team. Cronin was a former assistant to Huggins, who was displeased when he bolted to Pitino’s side.
Reece Gaines, who was saddled with early foul trouble, scored 18 points to lead Louisville (19-4, 9-3), which fell 1 1/2 games behind first-place Marquette in the American division. The Cardinals host Marquette on Thursday.
“We’ll see what were made of when we play again on Thursday,” Pitino said. “I won’t judge my team on tonight, I’ll judge how we respond. UC showed what it’s made of with how it came out tonight after the losses.”
It was the Cardinals’ most lopsided loss since a 77-50 defeat here last season.
A 3-pointer by Gaines gave Louisville its last lead at 18-17 with just over eight minutes left in the first half. Less than 30 seconds later, the Cardinals’ leading scorer went to the bench with his third foul and the Bearcats began to take over the game.
Stokes netted four points in a 15-6 surge that Field Williams capped with a free throw, giving the Bearcats a 32-24 lead with 4:15 left in the half. Cincinnati scored nine points from the line during its run.
It was still a six-point game with just under two minutes left in the half, when Bobbitt showed why he is the Bearcats’ best perimeter threat.
The 6-4 junior guard scored nine of his 11 points in the half - all on 3-pointers - in the final 1:45 before the break, extending the Bearcats’ lead to 47-33 at intermission.
It was Bobbitt’s best game since a 29-point outburst against Oregon in a nationally-televised contest in December.
“We count on Tony about once a month to make some shots,” Huggins said. “When he gets started, he can get on a roll and really score some points.”
Stokes netted 16 points for the Bearcats, who shot 40 percent (12-of-30) and made 19-of-27 free throws in the opening 20 minutes.
Stokes and Bobbitt were the offense early in the second half, combining for 13 points in a 15-5 run that pushed the lead to a commanding 62-38 with 15:15 remaining. Stokes capped the burst with a 3-pointer from the left side.
A 6-6 senior, Stokes made 7-of-14 shots from the field and went 15-of-18 from the line. Bobbitt, who scored 29 points in a rout of Oregon in December, was 8-of-15 from the floor.
Williams and Kareem Johnson each added 10 points for Cincinnati, which shot 44 percent (26-of-59) and went 7-of-20 from 3-point range.
Louisville shot 43 percent (28-of-65) and committed 21 turnovers.
The Cardinals never were able to mount a serious charge, and by the time Pitino was ejected with just over 11 minutes left, they were trailing by 31 points. Cincinnati led by as many as 35 points.
In addition to Gaines’ foul trouble, it also was a rough afternoon for Cardinals center Marvin Stone, who entered the contest as the club’s second-leading scorer. The 6-10 Kentucky transfer managed just four points in 24 minutes.