Cronin, Bearcats clicking on all cylinders

STORRS, Conn. -- Mick Cronin continues to make decisions that have reshaped this season and his career at Cincinnati.

His actions following the Dec. 10 brawl against Xavier were almost universally applauded, but it's the way he's led the Bearcats in games ever since that has UC suddenly in the upper tier of the Big East following Wednesday's 70-67 victory at No. 11 Connecticut.

During the suspensions of a few of his players, most prominently big man Yancy Gates, Cronin decided to free up his offense and go to four guards. He didn't have much of a choice, after all.

But then something unexpected happened: The previously struggling Bearcats won every game. So when Gates came back, Cronin stayed with the plan of a wide-open attack.

Wednesday night at UConn, it was on full display. The Cincinnati players had the green light to shoot all night and the Bearcats made 11 3-pointers, with the final one -- the most important one -- coming when Cronin decided to let the situation play out.

Connecticut's Shabazz Napier had buried a 3-pointer with nine seconds left to tie the game at 67, but Cronin didn’t call a timeout. Instead, once Sean Kilpatrick had the ball in his hands, he was simply allowed to go out and win the game.

“If Kilpatrick would have hesitated, I would have called a timeout,’’ Cronin said. “But as he was pushing it up, I saw his mindset. He was going to be aggressive. When you don’t call a timeout, you eliminate coach [Jim] Calhoun. If you call a timeout, you bring Calhoun into the play.’’

Calhoun didn't come into play.

Kilpatrick buried the 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds left.

“I wanted to go to the basket and saw all my teammates were covered,’’ Kilpatrick said. “I’ve been hitting my shots lately and I hit this one.’’

UC guard Cashmere Wright said he wanted Kilpatrick to take the shot in rhythm. “Got to love him for it,’’ Wright said.

Napier was stunned.

“I was super surprised that he hit that last 3,’’ Napier said. “We played good D on him. It was a tough shot.’’

The Bearcats moved to 15-4 overall, 5-1 in the Big East -- two games up in the loss column on UConn in that scramble behind Syracuse.

Almost unimaginable at the time, Cincinnati is now 10-1 since the brawl, with the only loss coming against St. John’s at home by two in a game Cincy had ample opportunities to win.

As for the Huskies, Calhoun said he "couldn’t be more disappointed in some of the guys on our team.’’

Connecticut was playing without guard Ryan Boatright for the second straight game and eighth time this season due to an investigation over extra benefits prior to his arrival at UConn. Boatright said prior to tipoff that he will meet with NCAA investigators Thursday in Storrs with the hope that he can answer their questions. He said he’s hopeful that he will be able to play Saturday at Tennessee.

How big was his absence? If you ask Napier, it cost the Huskies the game.

“We miss him a lot and you could tell during this game,’’ Napier said of Boatright. “Honestly, we wouldn’t have lost [with him].’’

The Bearcats didn’t make any excuses when they were missing Gates, who said he watched the way the team played without him and saw he would get more opportunities as the offense spread the floor.

He has.

“We’re faster, we’re more together, our defense is together more,’’ Gates said. “We’ve got so many guys that can score now. We’re staying focused and we’re locked in and we’re not timid on defense. We’re making stops and our shots are going in.’’

The win over UConn is the first in a brutal four-game stretch for UC, which has now won a remarkable seven straight Big East road games, including three this season (Pitt, Georgetown, UConn).

On Saturday, the Bearcats will face off with West Virginia in Morgantown and then get to come home to face top-ranked and unbeaten Syracuse on Big Monday -- their only matchup with the Orange this year. After that, there's a tricky road game at Rutgers, which already owns home wins over Florida and UConn.

That's a daunting stretch, no doubt. But it certainly got off to a promising start.

“It’s a big win for us," Cronin said. "But you’ve got to win these kinds of games if you’re going to compete for the Big East championship.”