No. 24 Cincinnati 83, Southern Mississippi 51
CINCINNATI (AP)—Three straight Conference USA losses left No. 24 Cincinnati in a tough spot. All the Bearcats can do now is win and hope for a lot of help.
Jason Maxiell scored 20 points and Eric Hicks had 18 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday night, setting up an 83-51 victory over Southern Mississippi.
Hicks and Maxiell did most of the damage for Cincinnati (19-6, 7-4 Conference USA), which relies too heavily at times on the two burly power forwards. The Bearcats’ offense was unbalanced and out of sync while they lost those three conference games, dropping them into the unfamiliar role of league also-ran.
They know they can’t afford another loss.
“We were just trying to get back on track,” Hicks said. “We need to get back on the right track fast. That was a game that can help us go that way. We got some confidence back.”
They didn’t need much more than their two power forwards to handle the Golden Eagles (10-14, 1-11), who have lost six in a row for the second time this season. Cincinnati dominated the boards 44-19 and scored nearly half of its points from close range.
Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy has a short roster and a group of mild-mannered players, making it tough to match up against the conference’s top teams.
“We’re just a team that needs to learn how to try before we do anything else,” Eustachy said. “We try in spurts. We don’t have a competitive makeup. That’s just how it is, who we are.
“When you’ve got the ref hugging you at the end of the game feeling sorry for you, it’s bad.”
After leading by only six points at halftime, the Bearcats pulled away from the conference’s last-place team. Hicks and Maxiell each had two baskets in a 12-3 spurt that opened the second half and broke the game open.
Rashaad Carruth led Southern Mississippi with 16 points.
Cincinnati is the nation’s best at making opponents miss, allowing them to make only 36.4 percent from the field. The Golden Eagles shot 38.5 percent and rarely got a second chance when they missed—only five offensive rebounds in all.
Hicks had 22 points, his career-high, in an 85-66 loss at DePaul on Saturday. He followed with a 9-of-14 shooting performance against the Golden Eagles, who double-teamed him and switched defenses but couldn’t stop him.
Cincinnati point guard Chad Moore had the flu, leaving the position in the hands of Jihad Muhammad, who was in a shooting slump over the last four games. He made a nifty pass through traffic to Maxiell for a dunk, and made a running scoop shot that tied it at 8.
Muhammad finished with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, his highest point total in 12 games. He had stayed in the gym until midnight, refining his jumper to end the slump.
“I went through that my freshman year in junior college,” said Muhammad, in his first season at Cincinnati. “You’ve just got to fight through it.”
Once Muhammad and the Bearcats’ other guards starting hitting from outside, the Golden Eagles had too many problems to handle.
“In the second half, I thought we passed the ball, we shared the ball,” Bearcats coach Bob Huggins said. “We were more into doing what we need to do. I think if we will just play together, we’ll be fine. I think our problems come when guys try to do things on their own.”
The lead changed hands five times before Cincinnati pulled ahead to stay. The Bearcats spread out the defense and lobbed the ball inside to Maxiell and Hicks, who are much wider than anyone on the Golden Eagles’ front line.
The forwards used their girth to clear room, then muscled inside for easy baskets. In one sequence, Hicks missed a close-up bank shot, and Maxiell plowed a path to the basket, got the rebound and was fouled. His two free throws put Cincinnati ahead 36-27, its biggest lead of the half.
The power forwards combined for 24 of Cincinnati’s 36 points, underscoring their dominance. They also helped the Bearcats control the boards 21-7 in the first half.