MICK CRONIN INTERVIEW
NEW YORK -- Yancy Gates was nearly perfect from the field, scoring a career-high 25 points and leading 25th-ranked Cincinnati to an 87-61 rout of upstart South Florida in the BIG EAST Championship presented by American Eagle Outfitters Wednesday night.
Gates was 10 of 11 from the field for the seventh-seeded Bearcats, who will play top-seeded Pitt in the quarterfinals Thursday night. His only miss came with 8:35 left in the game.
Dion Dixon added 21 points and Sean Kilpatrick had 12 for Cincinnati (25-7), which has won six of its last seven, matching the school's biggest win total since the 2004-05 season.
That was the last time Bob Huggins was roaming the sidelines, and also the last time the Bearcats made the NCAA tournament. They sure won't have to sweat out Selection Sunday, instead playing this week for seeding -- and just maybe their first Big East tournament title.
Augustus Gilchrist scored 16 points and Shaun Noriega had 12 for No. 15 seed South Florida (10-23), which beat Villanova on a last-second basket in the opening round of the tournament.
Any hopes of making it two straight were gone early.
Cincinnati led 24-22 with 4:05 left in the opening half, thanks largely to Noriega's outside shooting. Kilpatrick scored on a putback for the Bearcats, though, and Dixon added a pair of deep 3-pointers that extended their lead back to double digits.
Dixon added another basket right out of halftime, and Cincinnati methodically built its advantage to 54-35 with 11:54 remaining in the game. The Bearcats relied on the nation's fourth-best scoring defense to hold off South Florida the rest of the way, never letting the lead slip fewer than 13 points while spending most of the half trying to push it over 20.
They finally did in the closing minutes.
Mick Cronin spent that time on the edge of the bench, reveling in a victory that may finally have proven that his program is back among the nation's elite.
Cincinnati was in tatters when he arrived, but Cronin has won more games each successive season and is now finally heading to the NCAA tournament. But he still hasn't been embraced by some fans who believe Huggins never should have been forced out, and the Bearcats have struggled to sell tickets back home despite their winning ways.
Maybe a deep run in March will change all of that.
It would certainly help if Gates, a Cincinnati native, manages to perform like he did against South Florida every time he steps onto the court.
The junior forward made his first seven field goals, showing a deft touch around the rim against the smaller Bulls. Several times, he got loose for jams -- which certainly helped his shooting percentage -- and he also managed to go 5 for 8 from the free-throw line.
His previous career high was 23 points against DePaul last season, and he matched that on a basket with about 5 minutes left. As if for emphasis, Gates followed up by slamming down another dunk moments later.
He checked out of the game with 3:30 remaining to a round of applause from the Cincinnati cheering section and a series of high-fives from his coaching staff and teammates.
Then he sat smiling with Cronin the rest of the way.
Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press