Head coach John Brannen said playing in close matches is a rite of passage at the University of Cincinnati.
After the Bearcats defeated Temple on Friday, Brannen noted that he had trained 23 close games with the Bearcats in two years. UC hosted Central Florida at Fifth Third Arena on Sunday, and now that number hit 24.
It was the kind of game the Bearcats didn’t finish early in the season. But on Sunday, UC beat UCF, 69-68.
“When you play for Cincinnati, you have to have bragging rights and be proud of yourself,” said junior guard David DeJulius. “We didn’t play Cincinnati basketball (earlier in the year) and we didn’t play hard. We played individual basketball. We had to unite and really realize what kind of team we were on. “
The Bearcats have come a long way since December.
“Trust is only won through performance,” said Brannen. “I cannot trust you, I can give support and love. But your performance will ultimately lead to your confidence. And our boys now understand what it takes to be successful. “
Earlier this year, UC saw Xavier pull out at the end of the game and lose the Crosstown Shootout. A week later, the same thing happened against Tennessee. After that, the Bearcats lost four of their next six games by six points or less.
But lately the Bearcats have won their last four games with one possession. Eventually, Brannen said UC found his identity.
“They have gained a bit of momentum since then,” said Brannen. “We are connected more defensively, which makes us more offensively connected, which makes us heavier. You become a really good basketball team when you’re hard to beat. “
With 6:40 on Sunday against UCF, UC led 51-50. Over the next two minutes, the Bearcats found ways to score in transition and took a 6-0 lead, including the superstructures of second guards Mika Adams-Woods and DeJulius.
DeJulius led a smoother offensive against UC, and the Bearcats made nine of their last 13 shots.
“I’m just trying to do everything I can to win,” said DeJulius. “We have great players. Sometimes you push yourself back to Keith Williams for being a fucking player … Sometimes I have to spread the ball, but sometimes I know it’s time to shut things up. “
When the Bearcats had a losing streak in December and their offensive stagnated at big moments, Brannen said UC couldn’t score on the track because the team didn’t get to the edge late in the shot clock.
On Sunday, Adams-Woods and DeJulius had four open layups in the final five minutes that helped win the Bearcats.
DeJulius was closer for UC, with three late baskets, an assist and a rebound that finished the game with 14 points for the Bearcats.
“DeJulius did pretty much everything,” said Brannen. “He enabled us to cope.”
UCF reduced its deficit to one point by 11.9 seconds. Then, for the second year in a row, freshman Mason Madsen made late free throws and the Bearcats got the stop they needed in the end.
The Bearcats are now the team ranked fifth in the American Athletic Conference and have the longest active winning streak in the conference.
“If you look at our season (January) and you’re 2-6 right now, you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” DeJulius said. “But coach (Brannen) always saw this light at the end of the tunnel … He believed in us. And when you’ve got coaches like that who believe in you and bring it with you every day no matter what your file is, all you can do is walk through a wall for this guy. “