• Everything was going well for Cincinnati, and then everything went really well for Nevada. Now the Wolf Pack goes to the Sweet 16 and the Bearcats go home.
By Chris Johnson
March 18, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the moments after a loss that should not have happened, after a season comes crashing down mere minutes after it was practically guaranteed to continue, there is an understandable urge to find out why. Why did an offense that couldn’t consistently manufacture clean looks seemingly start hitting whenever it wanted to? Why did one of the sturdiest defenses in the country suddenly become porous? Why did a team with the capacity to grind opponents to dust in slow, excruciating fashion collapse when it could least afford to, when its very existence in this NCAA tournament demanded it?

There may be no sufficient explanation for why Cincinnati blew a 22-point lead in a 75-73 loss to Nevada in the second round on Sunday night. But if there is, no one was in a position to offer it in the moments after the final buzzer. There was disbelief, despondency and devastation. There was Cane Broome, eyes red and a white towel draped over his shoulders. There was Gary Clark, hunched over and surrounded by reporters, fighting back tears. There were stacks of white Cincinnati uniforms and shorts, lying next to black Under Armour duffel bags, ready to be picked up stored away.

The picture of grief inside a locker room at Bridgestone Arena included few details to account for how, with 11:37 on the clock and a trip to the Sweet 16 within reach, No. 2 Cincinnati came unglued against the No. 7 Wolf Pack. “To have it all right there in front of you, play so well as a unit, and then just fall apart,” Clark said. “That one’s going to hurt for a while.” Added junior guard Justin Jenifer, “That’s what the Bearcats is all about—is just Bearcat toughness. And in the last couple of minutes, they hustled more than us.”

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The Bearcats came here Sunday in a commanding position. Over the first two days of the NCAAs, a series of upsets had created a manageable path out of the South region for them. As of Saturday afternoon, Cincinnati’s chance of reaching the Final Four was the second highest among tourney teams, according to the statistics website FiveThirtyEight, behind only East region No. 1 seed Villanova, and its chance to win the national title was the third highest. More immediately, it also was assessed an 87% chance to beat Nevada and move on to the second weekend.

A series of upsets had caused Cincinnati’s quadrant of the bracket to break in its favor. No. 13 seed Buffalo blew out No. 4 seed Arizona. No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago took out No. 6 seed Miami, and then, two days later, upended No. 3 seed Tennessee. And, most importantly, No. 16 seed University of Maryland, Baltimore County trucked No. 1 seed Virginia. The Bearcats were the highest remaining seed in the South, and none of their potential matchups seemed daunting. Cincinnati just needed to win the games it was largely expected to win. 

On Saturday, the Bearcats sternly rejected any notion that the road to a deep run in the NCAAs had become much smoother. “I think the point you’re alluding to is, like, looking past this game,” senior forward Kyle Washington said in reference to Sunday’s meeting with Nevada. “I think if you look past anything, you can fall short. And in this tournament, you don’t get a second chance.” Added head coach Mick Cronin, “We’re worried about Nevada. That’s all that matters. If we don’t beat Nevada—whatever happened at some other site is completely irrelevant to us.”

That mindset definitely seemed to hold during the first half against the Wolf Pack. Cincinnati shot 50% from the field and 44% from three-point range while ringing up 1.4 points per possession and building a 44-32 lead. The Bearcats’ advantage ballooned to 22 by midway through the second half as they went to work on Nevada’s suspect defense. There are no logical basketball reasons to account for what unfolded between then and the final buzzer, a staggering reversal that amounted to a tie for the second-biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history, second only to BYU erasing a 25-point deficit to Iona in a 2012 play-in. “Got the deer in the headlights look,” Cronin said at a news conference afterward.

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Nevada’s rally crescendoed to a contested, right-wing three from Wolf Pack junior Caleb Martin that knotted the score at 73 with 54 seconds remaining. Cincinnati missed a jumper on the other end, and Martin’s brother, Cody, grabbed the rebound to kick off the winning possession. He front-rimmed a long two-point jumper, but sophomore forward Josh Hall rose over Cincinnati leading rebounder Gary Clark to snare the offensive board. Hall pivoted, took one dribble in the lane and lofted in a floater over Washington for the winning, two-point margin. “No matter what happened throughout the game,” Clark said. “That last play is going to sit in my head forever.”

Those who were quick to pounce on Virginia’s style as the cause of its demise at the hands of UMBC will doubtless seize on Cincinnati’s defeat on Sunday as validation. Like the Hoos, the Bearcats play a slow brand of ball, they smother opponents on defense, and consistent offense can elude them in certain moments—traits that have undergirded their rise into a national power under Cronin. For Cincinnati, this defeat should serve less as a referendum on its performance profile, as evidence that Cronin needs to shake things up, than a painful instance of a lot going right for one team, and wrong for another, in a mind-numbingly short period of time.

“We don’t lose too often around here,” junior wing Jacob Evans III said. “So whenever we do lose, it’s a shock.”

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