By Chris Johnson
February 06, 2014

Cincinnati has ridden its swarming defense to the top of the AAC, despite a limited offense. Cincinnati has ridden its swarming defense to the top of the AAC, despite a limited offense. (Al Behrman/AP)

The team sitting in first place in the American Athletic Conference had used its stifling defense – one that has now held opponents in home games for a full calendar year under a point per possession – to win 14 consecutive games. It had beaten second-place No. 14 Louisville, and taken down third-place No. 24 Memphis. Fourth-place Southern Methodist was another victim. The only thing No. 7 Cincinnati had yet to prove was whether it could handle the AAC’s best offense.

Thursday night’s 63-58 win over No. 23 UConn provided an answer.

Senior guard Sean Kilpatrick scored 26 points on 8-of-15 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out six assists to lead the Bearcats. Senior forward Justin Jackson added 15 points and six rebounds. Cincinnati held UConn’s potent offense (which entered Thursday ranked first in the conference in points scored per possession during league play) to roughly 0.95 PPP. Star senior guard Shabazz Napier, who had averaged 25.5 points over his last four games, shot 5-of-19 from the field and 2-of-12 from three-point range for 16 points. The Huskies played without junior forward DeAndre Daniels, who missed his second consecutive game with an ankle injury.

UConn led the Bearcats by three after Kilpatrick threw down a dunk on a fast break around the nine-minute mark, prompting Huskies coach Kevin Ollie to call a timeout. Cincinnati pulled ahead less than two minutes later when Kilpatrick fed Jackson for a layup. The Bearcats took a four-point lead after forward Titus Rubles made two free throws with under 30 seconds remaining, but UConn guard Ryan Boatright drilled a three to pull the Huskies within one. Two free throws apiece from junior forward Jermaine Sanders and Kilpatrick sealed the game.

When conference play began, it seemed unlikely that an offensively challenged team like Cincinnati could finish in first place. But the Bearcats, despite averaging just 104.8 points per 100 possessions during AAC play, the fifth best mark in the conference, have built a two-game lead in the conference standings -- one that is more commanding than the number indicates. Don’t count on the Bearcats fading down the stretch, either.

Cincinnati’s formula for winning – grind opponents with tough defense, lean on Kilpatrick, score enough points to get by – is sustainable. Even if Cincinnati’s offense isn’t firing on all cylinders, the Bearcats’ defense is so good they can make up for it by locking opponents down on the other end of the floor. They need not worry as much as some other teams about the whims of perimeter shooting leaving them susceptible to upsets. The Bearcats will guard, and most of the time that will be enough, even if they struggle on offense, to win.

But dismissing their offense would be a disservice to Kilpatrick. Cincinnati’s lead guard is now averaging 19.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He came into Thursday producing 1.216 points per possession on 27.8 percent usage, shooting 51 percent on his twos and playing 80.5 percent of available minutes. Cincinnati’s offense may be limited, but Kilpatrick has proven he can carry it through games. He did Thursday night.

Starting with a game Saturday at SMU, Cincinnati rotates road and home fixtures the rest of the regular season. UConn will host the Bearcats on March 1, but they get Louisville at home, on February 22. Having opened up a two game lead for first place in the conference standings, The Bearcats are in good position to win the conference title. Their win over the Huskies was a reminder, among a string of others that came before it, of how they got here.

Georgia 91, LSU 78 

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