Bearcats turn to defense to rally past Rutgers

Jeff Wallner, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said foul trouble is the only thing preventing Justin Jackson from consistently having games like Wednesday night's against Rutgers. Playing with only two fouls, Jackson was able to stay on the court for 26 minutes and provide a much-needed defensive spark for the 24th-ranked Bearcats.
Jackson scored seven points and had six blocks, and Sean Kilpatrick scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half as Cincinnati erased an eight-point halftime deficit and held off Rutgers 62-54 at Fifth Third Arena.
Cincinnati (17-4, 5-3 Big East) trailed by as many as 10 points in the second half before rallying behind its defense, which produced eight blocked shots and seven steals. Jackson's emphatic blocks brought the crowd of 11,024 to its feet on a couple of occasions.
"That's my game, to be the energy guy and do the little things, the dirty work," Jackson said. "This has been building inside me all year. Tonight it came out. I love blocked shots."
Cronin said Jackson had two of his best practices this past week, earning him the start. "He was tremendous tonight," Cronin said. "He's played with energy all year. When you can stay on the court you can continue to block shots and do those things."
Cheikh Mbodj scored 10 points and added two blocks for the Bearcats, who averaged 6.7 blocks coming in.
Myles Mack came off the bench to score 15 points for Rutgers (12-8, 3-6 Big East) and Jerome Seagears and Eli Carter each added 11 points. The Scarlet Knights lost at home to UC 68-58 on Jan. 12, but they took control early in Wednesday's game.
"Their intensity disrupted us early," said Cronin. "They started a bigger lineup against us, on purpose. Rutgers came to play. I give them credit for that."
The Bearcats, playing for the first time since losing at Syracuse on Jan. 21, didn't look sharp coming off the nine-day layoff and Rutgers took advantage.
Seagears' second 3-pointer put the Scarlet Knights ahead 13-5. He led all scorers with 11 points in the first half.
Kelvin Gaines' dunk off a lob from Kilpatrick cut UC's deficit to four and briefly shifted momentum in the Bearcats' favor.
But Mack came off the bench to score nine points in the first half for Rutgers, which was 6-for-10 from 3-point range in building a 30-22 halftime lead.
After Cincinnati's Cashmere Wright picked up his third foul with 19:07 left in the second half, Kilpatrick took over. He scored eight straight points, including a pair of 3-pointers, to cut a 10-point deficit to three.
Kilpatrick's steal and layup gave Cincinnati its first lead, 42-40, with 11:03 left.
"He showed what an all-conference player looks like," said Rutgers coach Mike Rice of Kilpatrick. "When they needed it, they kind of looked to him. There were a couple of shots that he hit that I thought we challenged, but he was better."
Wright, who's playing with a sprained right knee, scored his first points on a 3-pointer which put UC ahead 49-46 with under six minutes remaining. He finished with six points.
After being red-hot from 3-point range in the first half, Rutgers was just 2-for-7 in the second half as the Bearcats closed the gap.
"We started to push the ball the way we practice," said Cronin. "We have to be more patient at home. I think we play with too much stress at home, trying to be too perfect."
The Bearcats were just 2 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half. But their defense turned things around by producing a 9-0 advantage in fast-break points in the second half.
"When they turned their intensity and defensive pressure up we didn't have a response," said Rice. "We had a lot of turnovers that led to their transition points and our lack of making field goals. Those two things were critical to the game."
NOTES: Junior F Jackson returned to the Bearcats' starting lineup Wednesday for the first time since Jan. 5. Jackson had started UC's first 15 games before being benched following a loss to St. John's. ... Mack, Rutgers' second-leading scorer, did not start Wednesday's game, ending a streak of 18 straight starts. Mack, who averages 12.8 points, missed practice Tuesday with an injury. ... Rice rang the NASDAQ MarketSite closing bell on Jan. 28 at 4 Times Square in New York in conjunction with the Coaches vs. Cancer Sneakers Challenge.

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