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Three Man Weave: Bearcats Pass the Test Against Illinois

With the win, Wes Miller became the first UC head coach to start a tenure 5-0.

CINCINNATI — Wes Miller and the Bearcats took out No. 14 Illinois 71-51 on Monday night to open the 2021 Hall of Fame Classic. Cincinnati faced a 23-8 deficit in the first half but Wes Miller's crew made the right adjustments to completely flip the script.

"I'm excited for our guys and our program," Miller said in his postgame press conference. "It was our first time on a national stage, and I thought our guys performed well. I didn't like how we started the game; in terms of our offensive execution and what we believe in defensively. After the first eight minutes or so, our team really started trying to guard the right way. That's something we're trying to build our program on, and I thought we did a nice job against a real good team. We held a top-15 team to under 30 percent from the field and 14 percent from deep."

It was the team's most dominant showing against a ranked team since a 69-47 rolling of No. 17 Georgetown on March 5, 2011. Miller also became the first UC coach to start 5-0 at the school. The Bearcats took their fifth consecutive lead into halftime this season and then clamped down from there.

Here's the Three Man Weave from a shocker in Missouri.

Pressure Makes Diamonds

The Bearcats came into this game ranked 16th nationally in scoring defense (55.5 PPG allowed), and not even the 41st team in offensive efficiency could muster that average.

Kofi Cockburn appeared unguardable early in the game. The 7-foot, 285-pound sophomore looked hungry coming off his suspension, making four of his first five shots and forcing Abdul Ado into a pair of early fouls.

Miller decided to double down on the Cockburn focus. Cincinnati threw waves of bodies at the big man, knocking him out of rhythm and the offense. Cockburn went 3-for-8 the rest of the game, and his teammates didn't pick up that slack like in the prior three games.

Guard Trent Frazier came into the game as the team's leading scorer (17.5 PPG) but had no answer for the defensive pressure from UC's guards. He finished with zero points on 0-for-9 shooting. Same for the man right behind him heading into the contest. Second-leading scorer Jacob Grandison posted one point on 0-for-3 shooting.

Illinois ranked 168th in three-point percentage before facing UC (32.9%). Those struggles reached a new low on the unfamiliar rims. The Fighting Illini shot 3-for-22 from deep (13.6%) due to Cincinnati's immaculate rotations. There are never any weak defensive links to attack from Cincinnati. That kept holding up against KenPom's sixth-ranked team.

Davenport & Saunders Call Their Numbers

The big men contingent has grabbed most of the headlines, so Jeremiah Davenport (season-high 19 points, seven rebounds) and Mike Saunders (career-high 20 points, four rebounds) decided to show they can carry the team.

Cincinnati tallied their season-low in assists by far on Monday with six total, leaving Davenport and Saunders to do plenty of the creation on their own.

The latter used his explosion to launch a career night, while the former filled it up from deep. Saunders is a speeding bullet when he gets out in transition. That skillset transferred well against top-tier competition, as Illinois struggled to get set before the sophomore guard was already at the rim.

He drew contact on plenty of drives and led the team in free throw attempts, going 9-for-10 from the line. The charity stripe proved crucial towards UC hanging around early on and helped them bust any runs the Fighting Illini tried to muster. Cincinnati finished 17-for-20 as a team (85%), their third-straight game over 80%.

Davenport was just as effective but in a different way. Cincinnati's leading scorer was the only player in the game to can more than two triples (4-for-8 from deep). He brought the energy with each play in front of a sparse crowd. The T-Mobile Center wasn't packed on Monday, and Davenport's fire helped the Bearcats stay focused.

Miller Makes Right Adjustments

Coaching team sports like basketball and football often comes down to adjustments. Good coaches can adjust things in practice or tweak the approach at halftime, but great ones do it in-game. Miller pulled off the latter on Monday night.

The decision to throw more waves at Cockburn after trying to guard him big-on-big in the first five minutes flipped the entire script for Cincinnati. The Fighting Illini were ready to hand the offensive keys to Cockburn and let him roll out a 30-10 performance in his first game back. They didn't know what to do when that option left the building.

Illinois dominated the boards over the first three games of the year, leading the country with 50.3 RPG. Cockburn's addition (9.1 career RPG) figured to make them even stronger, but rebounding is a lot about effort, and the Bearcats wanted it more.

They can cap off a perfect run to open the season with a Hall of Fame Classic Championship title on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. against No. 13 Arkansas.

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