Mike Williams and Yancy Gates
It was a stormy night in Cincinnati Wednesday. Local forecasters were on the lookout for severe thunderstorms and tornados in the area, and the St. John’s University Red Storm men’s basketball team rolled into town to take on the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, leaving with a 71-61 defeat at the hands of the ‘Cats.
A crowd of 8,159 watched as Cincinnati (17-8, 7-5 in the Big East) came out of the gate strong defensively, holding St. John’s (12-12, 3-9 in the Big East) to without a field goal until the 15:17 mark in the first half when D.J. Kennedy hit his lone field goal of the night.
“Coach wanted the whole team to be pumped up tonight and come out really strong,” said starting forward Mike Williams. “We wanted to get a quick advantage. It was a pretty good advantage.”
Freshman Yancy Gates scored a game and career-high 21 points coming off the bench for the Bearcats, connecting on eight of his first nine field goals and 8-of-11 shooting overall. The big man also pulled down six rebounds and went a perfect 5-of-5 from the free throw line.
“Yancy played a great game, and he is a guy that it has been overdue for him,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “He does a great job of finishing around the basket. I would like to see him rebound more, and he knows that. We did a good job of getting him the ball in a position where he was comfortable. He has the offensive ability to get 20 points.”
Coming off the bench has allowed Gates to see and analyze the flow of the game before he steps foot on the floor. The Withrow grad gave credit for his high percentage shooting solely to his coach.
“It was really just the plays coach was calling. He got me open on a lot of cross screens from the guards,” said Gates. “I don’t think St. John’s knew we ran those plays.”
The Bearcats never trailed the Red Storm as their early defensive dominance, especially in the paint thanks to Williams and Gates, allowed them to build a 17-point lead after the first half, going into the locker room up 39-22. SJU shot just 28.1 percent (9-of-32) overall and 25 percent (2-of-8) from beyond the three-point line in the first half. St. John’s leading scorer this season, sophomore guard Paris Horne finished the first half with just five points. He would finish a team-high 20 points, shooting 7-of-14 from the floor including going 2-of-7 from three. The Red Storm’s field goal percentage was more than ten points below their season average, while Cincinnati shot more than 20 percentage points above their season average.
“All you have to do is be good on the night you are playing,” said St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts on UC’s impressive shooting performance.
Coach Cronin attributed his team’s improved shooting to a better passing effort. Freshman Dion Dixon led the team with five assists to go along with ten points coming off the bench.
“Our passing is really improved. We are getting guys on the same page and adjusting the offense as we learn about our team,” said the coach. “Individually our players, especially our wing guys - they had 10 assists - which is a lot of growth for those guys.”
UC’s leading scorer this year, junior guard Deonta Vaughn, shot 3-of-5 from three-point land in scoring 14 points on the night. Williams was the fourth Bearcat in double figures, scoring 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting while pulling down a game-high nine rebounds.
Cincinnati led by as many as 21 in the second half, when a Gates jumper with 15:09 remaining made it 53-32 UC.
“We dug ourselves too deep of a hole, and they are a very good team. They shot the ball very well, and we didn’t defend very well,” said Roberts. “They made too many easy shots, and we just missed so many lay ups driving the ball. Mick’s doing a great job with his team, and they played well.”
But the Red Storm would thunder back into contention late. With Vaughn sitting on the bench with five fouls, the Cincy offense struggled to go basket-for-basket with SJU, allowing St. John’s to pull within seven points with 2:38 to play. Dixon would hit three free throws down the stretch however, and the Bearcats would hold on to win by ten.
After winning three straight and seven of their last nine games overall, Cincinnati will next travel to Pittsburgh to face the Panthers on Valentines Day at 4 p.m. with momentum on their side.
“All week (coach Cronin) was telling us that we had to win (against St. John’s) because we have Pitt on Saturday,” said Williams. “To drop this game and go into Pitt, it wouldn’t be good. We needed this to have more momentum and be more pumped up to play Pitt.”