Cincinnati 88, Valparaiso 70
CINCINNATI (AP)—Jason Maxiell scored 18 points and made three consecutive baskets in a decisive run Friday night, leading Cincinnati to an 88-70 victory over Valparaiso in coach Bob Huggins’ first game back from a suspension.
Huggins served a two-month paid suspension over the summer for a drunken driving conviction. He spent his time fishing, walking and thinking. The Bearcats’ opener gave him a lot more to think about.
Cincinnati hasn’t lost a homer opener since 1964, but it took some doing to keep the streak intact. The Bearcats were getting outrebounded by 12 at one point, and trailed by one midway through the second half.
Eric Hicks also had 18 points and point guard Jihad Muhammad added 17 for Cincinnati, which finally took control by getting the ball inside to Maxiell and Hicks. Ron Howard led Valparaiso with 17 points and Dan Oppland had 14.
Before the tip-off, Cincinnati presented Conference USA championship rings to Huggins and its returning players. The Bearcats have won or shared eight of the conference’s nine regular-season titles.
As the opener illustrated, winning another in their final season before moving to the Big East is going to be difficult.
Valparaiso, the defending Mid-Continent Conference champion, came out shaky and fell behind 26-13. Oppland, a junior forward who led the Crusaders with a 15.7-point average last season, missed five of his first six shots, including a pair of layups.
It didn’t seem to matter that Huggins had benched junior forwards Armein Kirkland and James White for undisclosed reasons. At one point, White waved his arms as he vainly pleaded his case on the bench.
All it took was three shots to get Valparaiso going.
Oppland hit a pair of 3’s and a running left-handed bank shot, starting a 12-2 spurt that cut it to 31-30. Oppland’s tip-in put the Crusaders ahead 41-38 in the opening minute of the second half.
Kirkland and White both got in the game early in the second half, but neither made much of an impact as the lead changed hands six times and the score was tied three times in the half.
Maxiell helped Cincinnati finally pull away, hitting three consecutive baskets that 13-3 run that made it 71-62 with 6:39 left. Valparaiso never got closer than five points the rest of the way, fading in the last three minutes.