CINCINNATI (AP)—With an unranked opponent chipping away at Cincinnati’s lead, senior Jason Maxiell stepped in and took charge.
Maxiell scored 21 points, including 14 in the second half, to lead No. 25 Cincinnati to an 81-65 win over Northwestern State on Saturday in the Las Vegas Holiday Classic.
The Bearcats (7-0) are ranked for the first time this season. The game was coach Bob Huggins’ 500th at Cincinnati, where he is 381-119.
“We can’t let teams come in here and get on a roll, because it’s a big game for them,” Maxiell said. “We have to come in and meet their intensity, because they’re excited to play us.”
Tramaine Hancock scored 12 points and Clifton Lee added 11 to lead Northwestern State (5-5), which suffered its third consecutive loss after five straight wins.
Cincinnati, looking rusty in its first game in nine days, led for the entire first half until Hancock made back-to-back 3-pointers in the last minute to tie the score at 36 at halftime.
The Demons took their only lead of the second half with 17:07 left, when Lee’s jump shot made it 40-39. But Jihad Muhammed scored five unanswered points to give the Bearcats the lead for good.
Northwestern State pulled to 46-45 with 12:36 left on a 3-pointer by Hancock. Maxiell answered with nine consecutive points.
Byron Allen kept the Demons close by scoring on three consecutive possessions before fouling out with 9:49 left in the game, with Cincinnati leading 55-51. The Bearcats then pulled away with a 12-0 run in which Nick Williams scored six points on free throws.
“This is a tough environment,” Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy said. “When you play a top 20 program that flat-out gets up in your britches and guards you, you’ve got to prepare for that. For 35 minutes, we did that.”
Cincinnati’s Eric Hicks had 11 points and 11 rebounds, after missing the previous game with a knee injury. Armein Kirkland scored 15 points, Muhammad had 13 and Williams had 12.
Despite Hicks’ efforts, Cincinnati was outrebounded for the third consecutive game and fourth time this season.
“We didn’t play very well in the first half,” Huggins said. “We’re going to get outrebounded a lot if we don’t start blocking people out.”
The exempt tournament features six teams playing a round-robin format on local campuses. They will meet in Las Vegas for the final games later this month. No. 1 Illinois, Longwood, Valparaiso and Northern Iowa fill out the field.
The tournament uses experimental rules—the lane is 3 feet wider, the 3-point arc is moved back 9 inches to 20 feet, 6 inches. There’s also a “no-charge” zone under the basket similar to the one used in the NBA.