Friday, March 6, 1997
Defense is secret of UC's success

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kenyon Martin, who blocked eight shots, celebrates UC's 64-50 win over Louisville.
(Saed Hindash photo)
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The idea is to contest every shot. To concede nothing. To turn each step toward the goal into a test of will. To take the ballet out of basketball and turn it into trench warfare.

This is Bob Huggins' kind of hoops. Heavy on the elbows. Not so light on the feet. Defense Stalingrad Style. The University of Cincinnati Bearcats are not the prettiest team you'll ever see, and yet they were beautiful to behold Thursday night. They couldn't have guarded the basket much better with a bazooka.

The Bearcats beat Louisville, 64-50, in the Conference USA tournament at Shoemaker Center, granting points grudgingly, turning up the heat until you had to know the mercury read ''March.'' Open shots that might have been available in other months or against other teams were as scarce as Huggins smiles. Each point has purpose at this stage of the season.

That much was plain from the first possession, when Louisville won the tip, struggled for a decent look at the basket, and ultimately threw up a desperation airball as the shot clock expired. The Cardinals would miss 26 of their 35 field-goal attempts in the first half, shot 31 percent for the game, and their final point total was a season low. Only some of this was attributable to their aim.

''I think the big difference in this game,'' said Louisville coach Denny Crum, ''was that they just physically dominated us defensively. We had a really tough time getting a good shot.''

Martin, sultan of swat

Mainly, Louisville was unable to clear the airspace of Kenyon Martin, the spry UC sophomore who plays center as if mounted on springs. Martin blocked eight shots, rerouted numerous others and so smothered Louisville's inside game that the Cardinals were left to launch wildly from the perimeter.

''I told them, 'It's going to be a long day, so don't try that too much,' '' Martin said, recounting one of his early rejections. (He later lamented that he had only placed third on Conference USA's ''Trash Talking'' team.)

''He kind of dominated us from the jump,'' said Louisville center Alex Sanders, who was one-for-nine from the field. ''Cincinnati has a great defensive team. They did a pretty good job of denying me the ball. When I got it, they were right up on me.''

Louisville's frustrations probably peaked with about five minutes to play in the first half. Though UC power forward Bobby Brannen was riding the bench because of foul problems, the route to the Bearcats' basket remained clogged.

For eight stunning minutes, UC held Louisville to a single field goal in 12 attempts, and stretched a two-point lead into a 13-point cushion. On a night when neither side could muster a cohesive offense - Ruben Patterson, where is your shot selection? - this determined defensive stand probably spelled the difference.

Martin was in the middle of most of it, memorably in blocking back-to-back shots beneath the UC basket just inside the five-minute mark. The first block was a resounding rejection, the second a deflection that triggered a fast break and a Michael Horton layup.

Moments later, Magic Johnson sat down in the scouts section, having missed Martin's personal highlight reel. ''He can get the tape,'' Martin said.

No offensive juggernaut

The game was still a long way from over, but its tone had long since been set. When the teams retreated to their dressing rooms at halftime, Martin ran off the court with both of his index fingers extended. The Louisville players, meanwhile, left the floor as if they had just made it through a mine field.

''I can't imagine what it's like,'' Martin said, ''because we bother people. I know I'd get frustrated.''

No team in college basketball is better than the Bearcats at taking the fun out of offense. Some of this owes to Huggins' core philosophy, some of it is a matter of survival.

''We've won 24 (game) because we guard,'' Huggins said. ''This is not a juggernaut offensively. We struggle to score, but so does everybody else.''