How stubborn will and one timely buzzer-beater pushed Cincinnati past Purdue
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Larry Davis entered the Cincinnati postgame locker room in a coat and tie.
The associate head coach left it a few minutes later in a red Bearcats golf shirt.
The reason for the postgame wardrobe change: his players got him in the middle of the room and doused him with cups of water, part of a delirious celebration of an absurd comeback victory over Purdue, 66-65 in overtime.
"They soaked me," Davis said.
The game served as a metaphor for the Cincinnati season.
All was lost, multiple times. But the Bearcats never stopped trying to find their way. Sheer stubborn will was the best explanation for the victory, and for the arc of this season.
Lose your head coach for the year on Dec. 20 with an unruptured aneurysm. Lose your leading scorer Thursday with more than 16 minutes left to a flagrant-foul ejection. Fall behind by seven points with 48 seconds left. Need a layup to bounce, roll, hang … and then drop after the final horn to force OT.
Endure it all. And prevail.
"Unbelievable job of not giving in, not quitting, and doing what the Bearcats stand for," said Davis, who took over much of the head-coaching duties when Mick Cronin was sidelined late in 2014. "Which is fight to the end, stay together, stay as a group."
After the locker-room dousing, Davis grabbed his phone and saw a postgame text from Cronin. He called him right away. Cronin was at the team hotel here in Louisville, but he has not attended a game in person on doctor's orders.
"He's obviously so excited for our guys, proud of our guys," Davis said. "We wouldn't be here, where we're at, without Coach Cronin. …He can't be on the court, can't be at practice much, but he's been there helping us at every scout, counseling me, supporting me, helping me, telling me, 'You can do it, trust yourself.'
"I know he's really proud of our guys and the effort. I'm glad we didn't let him down."
Davis has been coaching under the burden of keeping this Cincinnati team on track without Cronin. He's put a lot of pressure on himself. For a while, the Bearcats had trended perilously close to the NCAA tournament bubble – especially after a ghastly home loss to Tulane Feb. 14. But a five-game winning streak to end the regular season got Cincy in the Dance as a No. 8 seed, matching them up with No. 9 Purdue.
It was a predictable rock fight between two inartistic teams. But in the second half it seemed to tilt inexorably in the Boilermakers' favor.
First came the ejection of Octavius Ellis, for aiming a flagrant elbow or forearm very intentionally at the face of Purdue center A.J. Hammons. To Cincinnati's immense good fortune, Ellis never made contact, or else he would be out for the round-of-32 game against No. 1 Kentucky Saturday.
But he definitely was out for the final 16 minutes, a development that seemed disastrous given the difficulty of handling 7-footer Hammons in the paint. At the time Cincinnati trailed 32-30, and it presumably would be only a matter of time before that deficit grew much larger.
Yet it never did until the final two minutes. The Bearcats got heroic play under duress from backup big man and junior-college transfer Coreontae DeBerry, who had a career-high 13 points in a career-high 26 minutes. It was like finding a $100 bill in your sock drawer – a wholly unexpected bonus.
"When the bell rang for him," Davis said, "he was ready and he answered it."
Still, Purdue finally budged ahead by a seemingly comfortable margin late. The Boilermakers had a spectacularly horrific shooting night, but they made consecutive 3-pointers and then two free throws to turn a 49-48 deficit into a 56-49 lead with all of 95 seconds left.
"We put ourself in position to win and we didn't make the necessary plays," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "That hurts."
The Boilermakers did plenty to sabotage themselves after taking that seven-point lead, committing a turnover against full-court pressure, a soft foul to allow a three-point play and missing two free throws (one of them a front end). But Cincinnati also made some huge plays.
The biggest was the cliffhanger layup by Troy Caupain to end regulation. A minute earlier, Caupain had blown an easy layup that seemed to doom the Bearcats, and he was disconsolate heading to the team huddle shortly thereafter.
Everyone stepped in to pick him up – teammates, and Davis himself, who grabbed Caupain's jersey and shouted at him to get over it and keep playing.
As fate would have it, Caupain wound up with the make-good opportunity with his team down two and seven seconds left. He drove hard to the hoop, leaned in to defender Vince Edwards to gain separation and barely got the ball over Edwards' outstretched hand.
Befitting a wildly dramatic day in Louisville, which saw two upsets by identical scores of 60-59, Caupain's shot moonwalked around the rim. It spun a complete circle on the iron, and when it appeared headed out, kissed the backboard, almost came to a dead stop on the heel and finally dropped for the tie well after the horn had sounded.
"Once it was rolling around the rim I stopped, bent down a little bit, looked up," Caupain said, "and once it fell in the rim and the buzzer went off, I just smiled."
The smiles may be gone by Saturday, when Cincinnati has to face mighty Kentucky. But for Larry Davis, a native of Mount Sterling, Ky., he'd have it no other way.
"I did grow up a Kentucky fan," Davis said. "…We used to listen to Kentucky on the radio. So your whole life, you grow up as a coach, and you either want to coach at Kentucky or you want to beat them. I'm getting the chance."
It's a slim chance. But not the first slim chance this Cincinnati team has faced this year. The Bearcats will probably lose, but not without a ferocious fight.
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