As the three senior captains wearing the numbers 2, 5 and 23 took their last bow to the crowd and met the student section for the last time, it marked the end of an era for a group of special basketball players that held the honor of wearing the red & black. Titus Rubles pulled his superman poses to the student as cheers roared. Before throwing his headband into the crowd, Justin Jackson traveled to all sides of the court and slapped hands with as many fans as possible. Then there was Sean Kilpatrick. He was the last senior to leave the floor, but not before hearing chants of "SK" and "MVP" and waving back to the student section saying thank you to the fans who supported him for five years.
Despite the emotional senior night, the Big Three put on possibly their best performance as a trio since their time here. Rubles, Kilpatrick and Jackson together scored an incredible 71 points as the Cincinnati Bearcats (25-5 overall; 14-3 American) came out on top in a high-scoring battle 97-84. The largest problem that the Bearcats have had in the last two games is the turnovers. Cincinnati turned the ball over 33 times combined against UConn and Louisville, which had resulted in an 0-2 stretch. But on senior night, Cincinnati masterfully protected the possession of the ball. Three turnovers for the team in the entire game and not one committed by the Big Three.
"To play such a high-paced offense and not have your three senior leaders turn the ball over once is almost comedic, I've never seen anything like it. It's truly amazing," coach Mick Cronin said about the performance.
But despite the emotional goodbye to the Bearcat Faithful, the journey of the Bearcats is not quite finished. With the win, UC's overall and AAC record is exactly equal with the Louisville Cardinals. With one game to play for either squad, conference champion (or champions) will be decided on Saturday. Cincinnati travels to the Garden State to take on the 11-19 Rutgers Scarlet Knights at noon. Win or lose, Bearcats fans will probably flip over to another channel to watch Louisville and UConn at 2 pm. There are a few scenarios that could play out come Saturday for the AAC crown.
Scenario 1: Cincinnati wins, Louisville loses (Simple) The Bearcats will earn an outright AAC regular season basketball championship. UC will also be slotted as the #1 seed in the conference tournament. Louisville will be the #2 seed in the tournament.
Scenario 2: Louisville wins, Cincinnati loses (Simple) The Cardinals will earn an outright AAC championship. Louisville will be slotted as the #1 seed in the conference tourney with UC the #2 seed.
Scenario 3: Cincinnati and Louisville both win or lose (Complicated) The Bearcats and Cardinals will share the AAC championship. Due to American tiebreaker rules, Louisville would earn the #1 seed in the conference tournament since they swept the third place team SMU whereas UC split with the Mustangs. Also, if UConn jumps into third place, the Cardinals would still have the edge since they will at worst have a 1-1 record against the Huskies, the same as the Bearcats. Then the tiebreaker would fall to SMU again, who would be in fourth place. Thus, Cincinnati would have the #2 seed.
But despite the outcome of the games on Saturday, the way that the three seniors have shouldered the load of the team for the duration of the season and have a chance at winning the regular season conference championship is nothing short of remarkable and one of Cronin's best squads that he has assembled in his eight-year tenure.