Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Bearcats risk falling onto NCAA bubble

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Just when you thought the University of Cincinnati had turned the corner and was ready to assume its customary position atop the Conference USA standings, along comes Marquette. And another stunning home loss.

        The Golden Eagles' 66-63 overtime victory Sunday night leaves the Bearcats with a diminishing margin for error in the final two weeks of the regular season.

        It was just the second C-USA loss ever at Shoemaker Center for UC (17-8, 7-5) in 42 games.

        Marquette (13-10, 8-4), which leads the American Division by one game, also beat the Bearcats last month and is the first team to sweep a season series with UC since Memphis in 1995 during Great Midwest Conference play.

        One problem for this Cincinnati team has been rebounding. This could become the first time in Bob Huggins' 12-year UC tenure that his team gets outrebounded; Bearcat opponents have 23 more boards this season.

        Marquette outrebounded Cincinnati 36-24 in Milwaukee on Jan. 10 and 40-35 on Sunday night.

        “We got out-toughed,” Huggins said. “We got outrebounded 17-4 to start the second half before we decide that maybe we ought to play again. We haven't rebounded the ball all year. We stand and watch.”

        UC dropped overnight from 27 to 35 in the Ratings Percentage Index. It went from having a chance to tie for the best league record to being fifth. The two division winners and the two teams with the next-best records will receive byes in the Conference USA tournament.

        What's at stake for UC over the last four regular-season games? A bye, an outside chance for the league title and an opportunity to stay off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

        Though UC's next two games are at home (Saint Louis on Wednesday and Houston on Saturday), Huggins thinks his team has focused better on the road.

        “I don't know what else we can do,” he said. “We have tried everything humanly possible to get them to try to concentrate on what's going on. On the road, you've kind of got them 24 hours a day. You can't do that at home. Maybe I should do that, I don't know.”

        The Bearcats led Marquette by 14 points in the first half Sunday night, then fell behind by as many as eight with 6:56 left in regulation. UC had a 9-1 run to send the game into overtime.

        Marquette won by hitting 10 of 11 free throws — no field goals — in overtime.

        If there was a bright spot, it was junior Immanuel McElroy, who played his most aggressive offensive game of the season. He scored a career-high 16 points and added seven rebounds and four assists.

        McElroy scored UC's first five overtime points and gave the Bearcats a 61-59 lead with 1:15 left after completing a three-point play. McElroy then fouled Marquette's Brian Wardle on a 3-point attempt with 54.4 seconds remaining.

        Wardle made all three free throws to put the Golden Eagles ahead for good.

        “Mac gives you everything he's got,” Huggins said. “I don't know where we'd be without Mac. I thought he did a great job defensively. I feel bad about the 3-point deal. With him, it's certainly not a lack of effort or caring. He's terrific. He started out playing 15 minutes a game for us. (Now) I can't keep him on the floor long enough.”

        McElroy was 6-of-11 from the field and is shooting .562 from the field, the highest percentage on the team. He played a career-high 41 minutes Sunday and had his fifth game scoring in double figures.

        “There can't be many better players around at getting to the rim than him,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said. “His first step is tremendous. His range is improving. He's a tough matchup.”


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