By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
After the final seconds ticked away and the victory was assured, Leonard Stokes raised his arms in triumph and let the cheers of the crowd wash over him.
Cincinnati forward Eric Hicks reacts on the bench late in the second half.
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He found his teammate Taron Barker, and slapped hands with him three times in celebration.
Following a week during which he and his teammates were ejected from their locker room and stripped of their practice uniforms, a week during which they lost a teammate and then regained him, it was OK to let the emotions flow.
"It was like, we did it," Stokes said. "We got our backs out from against the wall a little bit. It gave us some room to breathe."
Faced with the prospect of a four-game losing streak - which would have been the first at the University of Cincinnati since 1987-88 - the Bearcats (14-6) responded with a bruising 61-50 victory over No. 11 Oklahoma State (18-3) on Sunday afternoon before a sellout crowd of 13,176 fans at Shoemaker Center.
The win also enabled them to avoid losing two straight games at Shoemaker for the first time since the building opened in 1989.
It's been a long time since a non-conference game carried so much weight for the UC basketball program. But after three straight losses, there was a sense during the past few days that this was a game the Bearcats couldn't afford to lose.
Never mind that their Rating Percentage Index ranking of 20 still left them with plenty of margin for error in their quest for a 12th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
"This was our Super Bowl," Barker said. "It was do-or-die for us. If we had lost today, we might as well have hung it up there."
Oklahoma State head coach Eddie Sutton argues a call with official Mike Thibodeaux.
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UC coach Bob Huggins expressed no such visible relief, but he was quick to acknowledge what the win meant to the Bearcats, given the Cowboys' status as the No. 1 team in the RPI as the day began.
"We're 20 in the RPI and we just beat the No. 1 team in the RPI," Huggins said. "Around here it's always been about going to the NCAA Tournament and trying to advance as far as you can. That's why guys come here."
The Bearcats could thank their frequently maligned front line for this victory. Matched against a team that lacked the dominating presence inside that Marquette and Louisville possessed, the UC players won the battle handily.
Forward Jason Maxiell scored a career-high 24 points. Center Kareem Johnson grabbed nine rebounds for the second straight game and Stokes, normally a mediocre rebounder, matched his career high with 10 to go with 15 points. Overall, the Bearcats outrebounded the first-place team in the Big 12, 38-29.
Maxiell made 10-of-15 shots, most of them on his patented baseline turnaround jump shot. It was his second straight 20-point plus performance. In his last two games, he has made 18-of-29 shots.
"I just slowed down," said Maxiell. "I tried to take my time. I didn't let them push me outside. I stayed on the block."
UC led by one at halftime and briefly surrendered the lead when Oklahoma State scored the first basket of the second half. The Bearcats then reeled off 14 straight points to take a 41-28 lead with 12:26 to go.
Field Williams started the run with a 3-pointer after a scoreless first half, followed by a Maxiell dunk off a nifty feed from Barker. Oklahoma State never threatened again.
"Both teams play from a philosophical standpoint the same way," said Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton. "Both teams' defense is pretty good. Their offense just happened to be a little bit better than ours."
"We were just pumped," Barker said. "We had to win that game. Now we've got to use that as a stepping stone."
Team rebounds: 2.
Team rebounds: 4.
Attendance-13,176. 3-point goals-Oklahoma State 2-12 (V. Williams 1-5, Allen 0-1, Sanders 1-5, Gadson 0-1); Cincinnati 4-18 (Stokes 0-1, Williams 3-10, Barker 1-5, Bobbitt 0-2). Technical fouls-None. Officials-Hartzell, Thibodeaux, Higgins.
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