CINCINNATI (AP)—During Conference USA’s nine years, Cincinnati has dominated with defense. The Bearcats’ farewell season is starting the same way.
Jason Maxiell scored 19 points, and No. 23 Cincinnati rattled DePaul with its intense man-to-man defense Thursday night, setting up an 83-54 victory in the conference opener for both teams.
Cincinnati (12-1, 1-0) has won or shared eight of the league’s nine regular season titles. The Bearcats want one more before they head to the Big East next season.
“We’re trying to win another conference championship, and this is the first step,” coach Bob Huggins said.
The Bearcats have dominated DePaul (8-4, 0-1) in particular, winning 26 of their last 29 meetings. The Blue Demons have dropped 14 straight games on the Bearcats’ home court, and this was one of the most discouraging.
Once they fell behind, the Blue Demons looked like they just wanted to leave.
“We’ve lost here before and we’ve lost big before, but I try to read beyond the score,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. “I don’t think we did anything very well today. We could have played a spirited game and still lost, but when they threw the first punch, I don’t think we thought about punching back—not in a literal term.”
There was a punch the last time these teams played. DePaul lost the conference tournament title to the Bearcats at a downtown arena last year, a game remembered for LeVar Seals punching Cincinnati’s Tony Bobbitt in the groin. Seals got a one-game suspension.
Tempers flared on Thursday after Seals knocked James White to the court while trying to block his shot in the first half. Referee Tim Higgins, who also worked the conference title game, called a double technical foul after several players went nose-to-nose on the next possession.
Higgins also gave DePaul’s Quemont Greer a technical—his fourth foul—for talking trash after a second-half dunk. There were no other problems in a game that was well in hand before halftime.
Looking to rebound from a 67-45 loss to No. 1 Illinois, the Bearcats turned up the defensive pressure and pulled ahead 43-20 at halftime. Flustered DePaul had more turnovers (9) than field goals (8) in the half, shooting only 25.8 percent from the field.
“It was very important,” forward Eric Hicks said. “We had three good practices, three of the best this year. We played so horrible against Illinois. We wanted to come out and show we’re really pretty good.”
Armein Kirkland scored 18 points and Jihad Muhammad added 16 for Cincinnati, which didn’t let the lead slip below 20 in the second half.
Greer, who leads the conference in scoring at 24.1 points per game, managed only four points in the first half. He finished with a team-high 12 on 4-of-13 shooting, ending his school-record streak of eight consecutive games with at least 20 points.
DePaul shot only 30.3 percent from the field and had 16 turnovers in its most lopsided loss of the season.
Muhammad, a point guard who was only 2-of-12 against Illinois, hit his first three attempts from behind the arc as Cincinnati took control. His third 3-pointer started a 12-point spurt that put Cincinnati up 29-11.
Hicks, who guarded Greer most of the time, hit a bank shot over him that built the lead to 33-13 with 7:04 to go in the half and left the Blue Demons with dazed looks.
“For all intents and purposes, this game was decided once it started,” Leitao said. “Once they had 20 points, there wasn’t a whole lot of resistance from our point.”
DePaul couldn’t find open shots against the Bearcats’ tight defense, which is one of the nation’s best. Even Illinois had trouble, shooting 39.3 percent.
The Bearcats’ defense holds opponents to 35.8 percent shooting, fourth-best in the national rankings. It didn’t take long for DePaul to feel the pressure and start flinging them up. Drake Diener missed badly on a hurried 25-foot shot in the opening minutes, and Greer missed the rim on a fadeaway jumper that he shot quickly to avoid a block.
“We were standing around,” Leitao said. “When Quemont got the ball, he had to take a perimeter jump shot out of frustration or try to make a move and drive by two or three guys and try to make a play. Our offense was stagnant, as it has been all year long.”