LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As a 17-point lead evaporated against a hail of turnovers and dunks the other way, Cincinnati found its motto for resolve:
Keep calm, and get the ball to Sean Kilpatrick.
Senior guard Kilpatrick's steady hand and unflappable free throw stroke carried the No. 13 Bearcats to a 69-66 road win over No. 12 Louisville on Thursday night. In a place where so many other teams had wilted under the Cardinals’ pressure and big runs, Kilpatrick helped turn what could have been an excruciating blown lead into a key American Athletic Conference victory.
“He’s calm in big situations,” backcourt mate Troy Caupain said, “and that’s the best thing about him.”
Cincinnati (20-2, 9-0 AAC) saw its composure suddenly come undone after building a 44-27 lead early in the second half. A moribund Louisville offense sprung to life after the first media timeout of the half, allowing the Cardinals’ full-court pressure to finally do its thing. A technical foul on Titus Rubles helped fuel the 14-0 Cardinals run that cut the lead to three points in just 3:13 of game time. The KFC Yum! Center crowd roared its thirst for more blood.
That’s when Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin subbed Kilpatrick back in after a short rest, and Kilpatrick said he told his team, “OK, everybody calm down.”
Moments later, he drew a foul and sank both free throws to stem the Louisville tide. Consider it foreshadowing.
Kilpatrick went 11-for-11 from the foul line, all in the second half, including four in the final nine seconds. Other than muttering to himself before each shot, his free throw stroke was an artwork of minimalism, with no wasted movements and hardly any rim involved.
“I always tell myself to focus, to really lock in,” said Kilpatrick, who scored a game-high 28 points. “That’s something that really helped me on those free throws, when there were 22,000 fans against me.”
Louisville might be the defending national champions, but Cincinnati showed more mettle during crunch time. A prototypical Russdiculous moment gave the Cardinals their first lead since the opening minute, when Russ Smith drained a 28-footer with several ticks left on the shot clock to make it 64-61.
But the Bearcats’ defense, which mostly locked Louisville into a half-court slog, didn’t allow a field goal the final five minutes. Justin Jackson, who gritted through an ankle injury and turnover problems, made the key stop of the game by stripping Montrezl Harrell near the basket with 38 seconds left.
“A killer mentality is all I have,” Jackson said.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he told Rick Pitino before the game that “I’ve got three guys like Peyton Siva,” referencing the senior leader who guided Louisville to the NCAA title last season. When the game threatened to spin out of control, Cronin said his best coaching move was simply to make sure he put Kilpatrick, Jackson and Rubles on the floor.
“They’re the best three senior leaders in the country, period,” Cronin said. “They’re why we have the record we have.”
That record now includes 13 straight wins, plus road victories over the other top two American Athletic Conference contenders -- Louisville and Memphis. Cincinnati has a two-game lead over the rest of the conference, with the Cardinals and Tigers still scheduled to come to Fifth Third Arena.
“We’re up there,” Kilpatrick said. “Being able to come in and win in the Yum! Center, which is a great building and a great environment, was a test for us. But we came in and answered the bell.”
And it was another failed response for Louisville, which continued its pattern of feast (on weak competition) and famine (versus strong opponents). The Cardinals are now 0-4 against ranked teams this season and have an uphill climb in the AAC with home losses to Cincinnati and Memphis.
“We had them rattled and we let the game get away from us,” Pitino said.
It was almost as if the Louisville head coach could sense what was coming midway through the second half, when Smith committed a reach-in foul on Kilpatrick more than 30 feet from the basket. “Eighty-six percent!” Pitino yelled at Smith. “And you just fouled him.”
Kilpatrick actually entered the game shooting 84.9 percent from the line on the season, but Thursday’s performance raised his numbers to Pitino’s estimate. Kilpatrick said he has made as many as 22 in a row during practice, but he stopped trying to count free-throw streaks because it took too much time away from other drills.
Having forged his game the past three years in the heat of Big East battles, the AAC’s top scorer stayed cool while playing 37 minutes and running the point against Louisville’s press.
“People think he’s not an NBA player, but I don’t know how they can think that,” Cronin said. “He does so much.”
People didn’t think much of the Bearcats coming into this season, but this winning streak is changing that. They play defense as well as anybody, with an eraser like Jackson in the middle -- “the most valuable defensive player in the country,” Cronin said. Cincinnati has struggled in recent years on the opposite end but showed that is changing by shooting 63 percent in the second half against Louisville.
“We’re very different offensively than what we were just from a month ago,” Cronin said.
With a scorer like Kilpatrick, the Bearcats can keep this streak going for a while and angle for a top seed in March. But their floor leader says respect can wait.
“We’d rather keep that chip on our shoulder,” Kilpatrick said. “That lets us stay humble as a team and stay focused.”
Good things tend to happen when Cincinnati keeps an even keel.