NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kyle Washington and the 10th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats didn’t flinch when they lost leading scorer Jacob Evans to a first-half ankle injury.
Washington had 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, and Cincinnati clinched a share of the American Athletic Conference title with a 78-49 victory over Tulane on Thursday night.
“I was really happy to see the way our guys responded. There was no panic,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “You got to have poise and you got to be able to withstand some adversity if you’re going to be a great team and we did both things tonight. We handled adversity with a lot of poise and we played better as the game went on.”
Cane Broome scored 13 points for the Bearcats (26-4, 15-2), whose stifling defensive play helped them build leads as large as 19 in the first half and 33 in the second.
The Bearcats can clinch the title outright with a victory at No. 11 Wichita State on Sunday, and sound rather motivated to do so.
“When there’s something great that only a few people can get, I don’t think anyone wants to share it, especially something competitive like that,” Washington said.
Evans, a Baton Rouge-native, had a sizeable contingent of family and friends in Bearcats red sitting behind the bench and delighted them with three early 3-pointers as part of an 11-point outburst before hurting his ankle with 8 minutes left in the first half. He needed help to get to the locker room initially. He limped back to the bench before the first half ended and told Cronin he was able to play, but never checked back in.
“I wasn’t going to put him back in. It’s March, so we’ve got a lot bigger fish to fry, so he wasn’t going to get back in no matter what he told me,” Cronin said. “I mean, I love him and he wanted to play, but it is what it is.”
Cronin’s decision was made easy because Cincinnati appeared unfazed by Evans’ absence. Broome and Washington each scored four points during a 10-0 run that made it 35-17. Washington’s layup several minutes later pushed the lead to 39-20 by halftime.
Melvin Frazier scored 13 points and Cameron Reynolds had nine for Tulane (14-15, 5-12), which trailed for good after Jerron Cumberland’s free throws put Cincinnati ahead 7-5 with 16:14 left in the first half.
“They’ve got great size and athleticism and give great effort,” Tulane coach Mike Dunleavy said. “Our effort wasn’t as good as their effort by any means.”
The Bearcats blew the game wide open with a 12-0 second-half run during which the 6-foot-9 Washington scored five straight on a jumper and a 3. The spurt gave Cincinnati a 61-28 lead.
“We played great defense tonight — as good as we’ve been defensively in a long time,” Cronin said, noting that Tulane came in fourth in the AAC in scoring, averaging 74.7 points. “They’re a good offensive team and we made them not look like that tonight which is hard to do. That’s where it all started for us.”
Cincinnati: The Bearcats came in with the second best field goal percentage defense in the nation, allowing opponents to hit only 37.1 percent of their shots this season. They did even better against the Green Wave, who shot only 25 percent (7 of 28) in the first half and 31.4 percent (16 of 51) for the game. Cincinnati also exceeded its average of 5.5 blocks per game, swatting away seven, and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds after averaging 13.2 in that department this season.
Tulane: A packed house for a nationally televised game pumped up the noise way above usual levels in 4,000-seat Fogelman Arena at Devlin Fieldhouse. And while Tulane has improved in Dunleavy’s second season, the Green Wave wasn’t ready to contend with a team as balanced, experienced, consistent and defensively sound as Cincinnati. The Wave have dropped their past five meetings with the Bearcats and have not defeated a team ranked in the top 10 since No. 9 Memphis in 1983.
Broome, a junior transfer playing a reserve role in his first season with Cincinnati, has scored 13 or more in each of his past four games.
“I didn’t want to step on no toes or anything like that” earlier in the season, Broome said. “I’m gaining that groove and finding my ways to score the ball and help my team win. It’s clicking at the right time. I’d rather it be now than at the beginning of the year.”
Cincinnati finishes its regular season at No. 11 Wichita State on Sunday.
Tulane plays its regular season finale at UCF on Sunday.