COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Diminutive Tim Smith saw the opening—only a sliver, really, but more than ample—and headed to the basket. He had the shot he wanted with an NCAA tournament game on the line.
He let the ball go, and missed again.
For the second year in a row, East Tennessee State came up one shot short of a first-round upset. Tony Bobbitt’s 3-pointer with 16.1 seconds remaining gave Cincinnati an 80-77 victory Friday.
Smith ran semicircles around the fourth-seeded Bearcats, scoring 26 points and winning admirers with each dazzling drive to the hoop. His last one had a bad ending.
“The lane was open and I just missed it,” said Smith, who could have cut the deficit to one with 12 seconds left.
The 13th-seeded Buccaneers (27-6) then missed two hurried follow-up shots, dooming them to a familiar fate.
Last year, the Buccaneers nearly upset No. 2 seed Wake Forest in the first round of the tournament. Smith shot an airball on a 3-point attempt that would have put them ahead in the closing seconds of that one.
This time, his layup rolled off and Cincinnati (25-6) was spared from the prospect of another quick exit. The Bearcats failed to make it past the first weekend of the tournament in six of the last seven years.
The smallest player on the floor nearly ran them out of the tournament again.
“You can’t really contain him,” said Field Williams, who had 19 points and a lot of trouble trying to guard the 5-foot-9 Smith. “He’s so fast. He’s like Michael Vick with the basketball.”
Bobbitt is about as reliable as they come in the clutch.
The senior guard made a last-second 3 that clinched a share of the Conference USA regular season title. He was a primary option on the final play Friday when he got the ball in the left corner, faked James Anthony off his feet, then put Cincinnati ahead one last time.
“We’re always taught to pump-fake, get him in the air and shoot with confidence,” said Bobbitt, who had 15 points. “That’s what happened.”
As East Tennessee State stayed close, the crowd of 19,588 swung in its favor, wiping away Cincinnati’s advantage of playing only a two-hour drive from home.
Instead of screaming for the ‘Cats, the fans were marveling at Smith. He was 10-of-25 from the field, leading a comeback that stole the fans’ hearts but left the Buccaneers distraught.
“We’re a pretty sick bunch right now,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “We just really believed we could win.”
Most of the Bearcats went up to Smith after the game and congratulated him on his performance, giving hugs that showed a deep respect.
“Marveled wouldn’t be an adequate word,” Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s got to be as fast with the ball as anybody in college basketball. He really broke down our defense.”
Cincinnati will play Illinois in the second round of the Atlanta Regional on Sunday, facing another quick guard in Dee Brown. The Bearcats have had trouble stopping quick guards all season.
“Dee’s really fast,” Huggins said. “I hope he’s not that fast.”
The Bearcats thought they could handle Smith, who got to shake hands during introductions with one of the players who would guard him—6-7 forward James White, whose chin touched the bottom of Smith’s head when they embraced.
Try shooting the left-handed jumper over that!
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Smith found a way to get around those long arms.
Cincinnati led 11-0 after only 2 minutes, 10 seconds. The Buccaneers missed their first six shots—three of them were swatted away—and Bartow discarded his jacket and started screaming almost as loudly as Huggins.
The Buccaneers then started playing like a team with tournament experience. Smith hit a 3 and a pull-up jumper as East Tennessee State pulled within 21-19.
From that point on, Smith was the show.
Darting through taller defenders, he repeatedly drove to the basket for layups. He had 16 points in the first half, which ended with Cincinnati ahead 45-40.
Smith blew past Williams—the Bearcats’ best perimeter defender—for a layup that brought the crowd to its feet and gave East Tennessee State its first lead, 57-56, with 12:47 go.
There were eight ties and four lead changes in the second half, when East Tennessee State led by as many as three.