LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The game was going to hell all around Sean Kilpatrick.
Playing in a deafening Yum Center, Kilpatrick and his Cincinnati Bearcats had squandered every bit of a 17-point, second-half lead in less than 10 minutes of game clock. Louisville’s press was eating Cincy alive. The turnovers were coming in flurries. Coach Mick Cronin had gotten a technical and tossed off his suit coat.
The capper came when guard Russ Smith threw in a Russdiculous 30-foot shot, and the defending national champions had their first lead since the first minute of the game, 64-61.
This was a ghastly meltdown. A great effort wasted. The natural assumption was that the Cardinals would continue to ride their massive wave of momentum through the final five minutes and win going away.
Kilpatrick wouldn’t have it. Amid chaos and mayhem, the oldest guy on the court pulled his team together and got the Bearcats to the finish line on top, 69-66.
“Twenty-two thousand people going against me,” he said. “Those are the moments I live for.”
Kilpatrick and the Bearcats are living large right now. They’re 20-2, 9-0 in the American Athletic Conference and owning a two-game lead over a pair of teams they have now beaten on the road – Memphis and Louisville. A program that has become a consistent NCAA tournament presence thanks to its defense is now finding an offensive flow.
The thought of Cincinnati shooting 63 percent for a half against Louisville was preposterous as recently as six weeks ago, when the Bearcats flailed to 50, 47 and 44 points in consecutive games against New Mexico, Xavier and Pittsburgh. That was the Cincy we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent years.
But not anymore. This is a team with options, inside and out. And a legit star in Sean Kilpatrick.
In the alleged Year of the Freshman in college basketball, here’s a secret you need to know: Kilpatrick is a 24-year-old, fifth-year senior. He is a certified relic who redshirted his first year at Cincinnati, against his wishes.
“I left his (Cronin’s) office mad,” after being told he wouldn’t play in 2009-10.
“He’ll get over it,” was Cronin’s assessment.
He was right. The guy is on pace to become the second 2,000-point scorer in Cincinnati history, trailing only a guy named Oscar Robertson.
“I really thank my coach and my parents for that,” Kilpatrick says now, benefitting from all the experience that so few upper-echelon players now get.
[Interpretive Dance: SMU striving for first tourney in 21 years]
Kilpatrick played like an adult Thursday night, scoring a game-high 28 points – and, in the caldron of crunch time, 12 of Cincinnati’s last 14. He handled the ball solidly against withering pressure. He made all 11 of his free throws – part of a 17-for-18 night by the Bearcats from the line – including six in the final three minutes.
And when Louisville failed to foul more vulnerable free-throw shooters in the final 25 seconds, Kilpatrick eagerly volunteered himself for the clutch shots.
“I ran to the ball as fast as I could,” the Yonkers, N.Y., product said. “I wasn’t going to clank those free throws for nothing.”
He swished them, and a Bearcats team that starts three seniors – Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson – relied on its veteran core to score its biggest win of an overachieving season.
“I’ve got the best three senior leaders in the country,” Cronin said. “They may not be the best three players – I mean, Kentucky and Kansas have three lottery picks. But I wouldn’t trade them for anybody. … You can’t understand the fortitude of these guys. I’ve got three of the toughest guys in the country.”
Louisville has tough guys, too. But there weren’t many smart ones wearing home white at the end.
After Smith’s bomb 3-pointer gave the Cards that 64-61 lead, Cincinnati missed and Louisville had a chance to put two possessions of daylight between them and the flailing Bearcats. But Smith felt the Hero Virus flowing through his veins and launched another absurd shot, this time from 26 feet, this time with half a shot clock left.
Opportunity bricked. And the Cardinals – who still haven't beaten a ranked team this season – never scored another field goal.
Those shots are part of the Russdiculous package – he’s the ultimate boom-or-bust baller. But this was Smith reverting to gunner and away from the distributor the NBA wanted to see – and doing so at precisely the wrong time.
But Smith wasn’t the only Louisville senior to lock up late mentally. Fifth-year senior Stephan Van Treese failed to foul freshman Kevin Johnson – who had just come into the game – when he had the ball in the final seconds. That allowed Kilpatrick to get to the line and finish things.
“He doesn’t miss free throws,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, in a moment of calm between firing acidic responses at postgame questions. “If you look at what he shoots from the field it is awesome, he has a good assist-turnover ratio, and he doesn’t miss free throws. It wasn’t even close when he went to the line.”
And as of today, it isn’t even close when naming the best team in the AAC. The Bearcats are it. But even after a big win like this, the voice inside Cronin’s red head said late January is no time for excessive celebration.
“As a basketball friend of mine once told me, ‘Peacock today, feather duster tomorrow,’ “ Cronin related, citing the sage advice of Kenny Pignatello, “a noted North Jersey philosopher.”
A lot of opposing teams have come out of this building feather dusters. Cincinnati deserved to strut the 105 miles back up Interstate 71 after this victory, with clutch peacock Sean Kilpatrick leading the parade.