CINCINNATI (AP)—The Conference USA race ended in gridlock.
Tony Bobbitt made a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws in the final 36 seconds Saturday, sending No. 13 Cincinnati to an 83-79 victory over No. 20 Memphis that left first place a crowded place.
When the day was done, five of the conference’s 14 teams shared its regular-season title.
“We’re like the NFL,” Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said. “We’ve achieved parity.”
The Bearcats (21-6, 12-4) earned a share of their eighth such championship by knocking off the conference’s hottest team, one that could have won it outright. Memphis (21-6, 12-4) opened the day a game ahead of Cincinnati, DePaul, Alabama-Birmingham and Charlotte.
Cincinnati’s victory amounted to a come-on-down invitation for others to join the co-championship. The other three teams also won their games, setting up the five-way tie.
DePaul won the last game of the day, beating South Florida to earn the top seed in the conference tournament next week in Cincinnati. There are four first-round byes, so Charlotte will wind up playing an extra game—it came up on the short end of the five-team tiebreakers.
Four of the teams were delighted to get a little piece of the title. Not Memphis, which had won 12 of its last 13 games and needed one more victory to hoist the trophy all by itself.
“If you’re a basketball fan and you watched that game, you’ve got a great feeling,” Memphis coach John Calipari said. “If you’re a Cincinnati fan, you’re ecstatic. If you’re a Memphis fan, you’re devastated.”
One shot by a disparaged player made the difference.
Bobbitt, who was harshly criticized by Huggins for his mindless play and disrespectful manner in a loss at DePaul on Thursday night, wound up hitting Cincinnati’s biggest shots of the season.
He almost threw the ball away—Field Williams had to leap to catch his ill-advised pass—then got it back and made a 3-pointer from the right wing that put Cincinnati ahead 81-79 with 36 seconds left.
Bobbitt, one of three seniors honored before the final home game, felt he needed to do something special after his ugly showing two nights ago. Bobbitt twice fouled a DePaul player shooting a 3, and exchanged words with Huggins.
“My teammates got in my face,” said Bobbitt, who finished with 20 points. “They told me, ‘T, just shut up and play.’ I have never in my life talked back to a coach like that.”
After Bobbitt’s 3 put the Bearcats ahead, Sean Banks missed a 3-pointer and Bobbitt got the rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws with 19.7 seconds left.
Memphis missed three rushed 3-point attempts in the closing seconds.
Afterward, Banks sat in his locker with his legs stretched out, a blank look on his face. Guard Antonio Burks sat glumly on a folding chair, his chin in his hand. It was no consolation that they finished with a fraction of first.
“We can’t look at it like that right now,” said Burks, who had 16 points. “We had the game and we let it go at the end. We could have had more.”
Banks scored 28 points—one shy of his career high—in a back-and-forth game that featured eight ties and 21 lead changes. Neither team could gain a toehold in a rapid-fire game of contrasting styles. Memphis held the biggest lead—29-21 with 7:20 left in the first half.
Memphis leads the conference in 3-point shots and fired away against a defense that tried just about everything. Huggins sent one defender after another after Banks, to no avail. The 6-foot-8 freshman finished 10-of-17 from the field.
The Tigers made 12 of their 29 shots from beyond the arc, the most allowed by the Bearcats this season.
Cincinnati took a different approach, working the ball inside the Tigers’ man-to-man defense for close-up shots. Jason Maxiell finished with 19 points and a game-high nine rebounds as Cincinnati dominated inside.
Neither team led by more than five points in the second half. Bobbitt came off a screen and hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key that put the Bearcats up 53-51—their first lead since midway through the first half—and set up a pulsating finish. There were five ties and 13 lead changes down the stretch.
The Bearcats hugged and waved towels on the court when the buzzer sounded. They won outright or shared the conference’s first seven regular season championships, but missed out last year for the first time.
The seniors didn’t want to be the first to go out empty-handed two years in a row.
“It’s my last one,” said Williams, a senior guard who had 16 points. “You always want to leave on top. If we didn’t win this one, it wouldn’t have felt right.”