It ain't easy being a UC Bearcat. You're playing for Bob Huggins, who screams a little. You're playing for your teammates, who don't always rebound. You're playing for fans spoiled by success and for former players who dog you if you don't meet their mountain-high standards.
If you lose a few in a row, you can't even dress in your own locker room.
A few nights ago, Leonard Stokes was getting gas at the BP on Jefferson when one of the city's finest dropped some words in his ear.
"You guys can't lose four in a row," the cop said.
Good thing they didn't. If the Bearcats hadn't beaten 11th-ranked Oklahoma State on Sunday, who knows where they'd be today. In boxes on a Burnet Avenue curb, maybe, being abused by Terry Nelson. No wonder point guard Taron Barker said after 61-50, "Today was our Super Bowl."
It wasn't all that, but it was big. No, "It was huge," Huggins allowed. The Cowboys were ranked No. 1 in the Ratings Percentage Index, the statistical guide-for-math-geniuses that helps the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee decide your March fate.
The win kept UC very much in the game. It also kept the players' confidence from sliding into the broom closet in their little locker-room-for-exiles. Sunday's game was going to say something about this UC team, one way or another. You can't lose three in a row without the whole city wondering what's ailing you.
Cincinnati forward Leonard Stokes drives into Oklahoma State defender Melvin Sanders.
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"Don't count us out" was the message the Bearcats delivered, Barker decided.
They won the way other UC teams have, the way you expect them to - muscling up in the half court and playing hand-to-hand defense. It helped that Oklahoma State wanted to play the same way. It also helped that the Cowboys are in the running - or, in their case, the walking - for worst offensive team ever ranked No. 1 in the RPI.
With 7:54 left in the game, Oklahoma State was shooting 31 percent, had missed all 10 of its 3-pointers and had produced two assists. They'd achieved a blazing 34 points by then, and looked like they might not score again. Ever.
"It's like they're playing football," Stokes said at one point. Oh, so that's what it was.
In a brass-knuckles game like this, UC needed a big performance from Jason Maxiell. He provided it, grinding down skinny OSU forward Andre Williams while making 10 of 15 shots, many of them pretty 10-foot turnaround jumpers.
Cincinnati guard Taron Barker pressures Oklahoma State guard Victor Williams.
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Someone asked Maxiell what effect being kicked out of the locker room had. "It made us work harder to get back in the locker room," he said.
Three straight losses was a dominant theme in practice, too. The guards yelled at the big men to rebound stronger. Kenyon Martin yelled at Leonard Stokes and told him to stop being such a nice guy and get on his teammates. Huggins yelled at everybody.
"Here, it's always been about going to the NCAA Tournament and advancing as far as you can," the coach explained. "That's why guys come here."
This isn't one of Huggins' better teams. It has no consistent scorer, the defense can come and go. The big men were stout enough Sunday, but they're not Martin or Danny Fortson. They could use a shot of Bobby Brannen. But it's a team of strivers, who want to do well. When they come to play, they don't do much to embarrass the old guys.
"We got our backs from against the wall a little bit," Stokes said. "This gave us some room to breathe."
They might even get their locker room back. "(The exile) brought us closer together," Stokes decided. "That's a small locker room."
You can reach Paul Daugherty at firstname.lastname@example.org
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