RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Cincinnati played physical and aggressive defense that harassed North Carolina State's top backcourt scorers.
It was a performance that sent the Bearcats into their conference opener with a confidence boost while leaving Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried irked by his team's play.
Shaq Thomas matched his career high of 15 points to help Cincinnati beat N.C. State 76-60 on Tuesday despite playing its third straight game without head coach Mick Cronin due to medical reasons.
Troy Caupain added 13 points for the Bearcats (9-3), who led by double figures nearly all day to beat the Wolfpack (10-4) for the second straight season.
''We knew we had to come out and just play hard and be aggressive,'' Thomas said. ''I think it showed today. We had a great week of practice. We really prepared really hard.''
Cincinnati shot 54 percent, led 41-26 at halftime and pushed that margin to 19 midway through the second half. The Bearcats never let that lead slip to single digits, either.
They controlled the glass (31-26) and shot 14 for 23 (61 percent) after halftime, a strong way to head into American Athletic Conference play this weekend.
''When we play, you've got to be ready to play,'' Caupain said. ''You've got to be able to execute and you've got to be able to play hard, and worry about the next play. If not, then I feel like we're going to get in your head and we're going to affect you when you start to play.''
The Wolfpack's offense was out of rhythm from the start against press and zone defenses.
Anthony ''Cat'' Barber scored 15 points to lead N.C. State, though top scorer Trevor Lacey finished with just six points on 1-for-8 shooting, while outside shooter Ralston Turner finished with just five points - a crippling lack of production for a backcourt-reliant team.
Afterward, Gottfried criticized his team's play and even apologized to home fans.
''We've got some guys that need to understand it's a privilege to put the uniform on, it's a privilege to walk out there in front of 17,000 fans,'' Gottfried said. ''You cannot walk out there casually and expect to be a really good basketball player or a good basketball team.''
Cincinnati: Freshman forward Gary Clark finished with nine points in his return to his home state. He is from Clayton, about 20 minutes east of Raleigh. ... head coach Mick Cronin hasn't coached since doctors discovered he had an unruptured aneurysm before a loss to VCU on Dec. 20.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack twice got the lead to 10 in the final 5 minutes. ... N.C. State trailed 50-32 in the second half for the second straight game, though it rallied in last week's win against Louisiana Tech. ... N.C. State was 0 for 5 from 3-point range, marking its first game without a made 3 since losing to Virginia Tech in February 2010.
Cincinnati hosts SMU in Saturday's AAC opener.
N.C. State hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday.
THE KEY SEQUENCE
Up 10, Cincinnati put away N.C. State with three straight baskets: Octavius Ellis dunked home a miss from Clark, Shaq Thomas scored off a spin move, then Jermaine Sanders hit a layup to make it 69-53 with 2:18 left.
TURNER'S BAD DAY
Ralston Turner scored a career-high 33 points with eight 3-pointers against Tennessee on Dec. 17, but has struggled ever since. He is 1 for 9 from behind the arc with 14 points in the past three games. ''He looks tired to me, doesn't look like he's got a lot of energy,'' Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. ''Got to figure out with him why that is.''
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