By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
SALT LAKE CITY - With the game on the line, the University of Cincinnati basketball players always look to the bench and head coach Bob Huggins for guidance, inspiration and drive.
Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins sits in front of his bench during the first half.
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Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf dunks over Cincinnati's Kyle Bankhead.
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Gonzaga's Winston Brooks (1) celebrates with teammates following their 74-69 win over Cincinnati.
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But when they looked to Huggins on Thursday in the final 16:17 minutes of their first-round West Regional game against Gonzaga, he was back in their locker room stewing about a call by official Mike Kitts.
Huggins was automatically ejected by Kitts after being called for two technical fouls for protesting a traveling call on UC's Jason Maxiell.
That left associate head coach Dan Peters in charge and left the Bearcats without a presence on the bench that they have come to rely on so heavily.
"That's the head of the monster," said UC guard Taron Barker. "When you chop the head of the monster off, it takes a toll on the whole team. Coach is everything to us. That motivated us, but that hurt us, too, because he would have fired us up."
UC trailed by seven at the time, fell behind by 11 after Gonzaga's Blake Stepp made the four free throws from the technicals, then roared back to get within three points with 22 seconds to go before succumbing 74-69 at the Huntsman Center.
The Bearcats' chance to tie was foiled by Gonzaga's Tony Skinner, who blocked Tony Bobbitt's 3-pointer with about 10 seconds left.
The loss for No. 8-seeded UC (17-12) ended a string of eight straight years in which the Bearcats have won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. They have been eliminated in either the first or second round in eight of the past 10 years.
No. 9 seed Gonzaga (24-8) will play No. 1 seed Arizona on Saturday.
Huggins declined to comment on the technicals after the game, but as he made his way to the UC locker room, he used his arm to indicate a shoving motion and said to a security guard, "He pushed a guy down, and it's not a foul?"
Later in the UC locker room, he expressed regret about not being around for the final minutes of his seniors' UC careers.
"I feel bad, because it's the last time I'll be able to coach Lenny (Stokes), Taron and Derek (Hollman)," Huggins said. "Those guys have meant so much to Cincinnati basketball."
When the traveling call was made against Maxiell, Huggins jumped up and down in front of his bench flailing his arms. He was walking along the scorer's table toward the center of the court arguing the call when he received the first technical.
The second technical came when he continued to protest and took several steps onto the court.
According to Western Athletic Commissioner Karl Benson, who served as the NCAA Basketball Committee representative for this tournament site, Huggins received the first technical "for leaving the coaching box."
The second tech, Benson said, was called because "Huggins was refusing to leave the floor and was four steps onto the court. And he was continuing to question the call."
Huggins lingered on the court after he was ejected, prompting Peters and assistant coach Andy Kennedy to walk onto the court in an attempt to persuade him to leave.
Athletic director Bob Goin then escorted Huggins toward the locker room.
"That's just a reaction I have," Goin said. "If I see a little something that happens, my role as an athletic director is showing up. It sends a message. I don't have to say anything."
Goin said he didn't think the incident would damage the reputation of the university or program.
"I don't think there's anything drastically wrong," Goin said, "with a basketball coach getting two ... I mean, it's wrong and it's disappointing to me, but I don't think that has anything to do with the image or the integrity of the university because they may have been merited and they may not have been. That's a judgment call."
Huggins spent the rest of the game in the UC locker room, unable to watch the game.
Asked what he did while he was in the locker room, Huggins said, "I drank a Cranapple."
"It's been a frustrating year," Goin said. "It's a year that we've had some good things happen and we've had some not-so-good things happen."
Goin said Huggins did not have to attend the interview session but decided it would be best for him to fulfill his obligation.
Thus ends what has been the most frustrating season of Huggins' UC career. Three weeks before practice began, he suffered a massive heart attack in Pittsburgh. He quickly learned that his players lacked both the physical skills and drive of his previous teams.
Then, in the middle of January, he learned that his mother had cancer.
"It's been a hard year," Huggins said softly as he walked down the ramp toward the locker room after his interview session. "I don't know how close you are to your mother, but I'm very close to my mother."
Team rebounds - 4.
Team rebounds - 1.
3-pointers - Gonzaga 6-14 (Skinner 2-3, Brooks 3-4, Stepp 1-4, Bankhead 0-3); Cincinnati 10-27 (Stokes 1-2, Williams 3-9, Barker 4-8, Moore 0-1, Bobbitt 2-6, Flowers 0-1). Technicals - Gonzaga: none, Cincinnati: Team 2. Officials - Kitts, Kersey, Poole. Attendance - NA.
UC's recent NCAA Tournament history
1997 - beat Butler 86-69; lost to Iowa State 67-66.
1998 - beat Northern Arizona 65-62; lost to West Virginia 75-74.
1999 - beat George Mason 72-48; lost to Temple 64-54.
2000 - beat North Carolina-Wilmington 64-47; lost to Tulsa 69-61.
2001 - beat Brigham Young 84-59; beat Kent State 66-43; lost to Stanford 78-65.
2002 - beat Boston University 90-52; lost to UCLA 105-101, 2OT.
2003 - lost to Gonzaga 74-69.
Gonzaga 74, UC 69
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