Originally published March 17, 2011 at 11:44p.m., updated March 18, 2011 at 12:53a.m.
Washington Nearly 11 minutes without giving up a field goal. Yep, Cincinnati's still got that great defense.
Big guy Yancy Gates on the perimeter taking — and making — 3-pointers. Now that's a bit unusual.
Cincinnati's return to the NCAA tournament after a six-year absence is off to a successful and memorable start. The No. 6 seed took the lead for good midway through the first half Thursday night and turned Missouri's "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" into a slow-moving train in a 78-63 victory over the No. 11 seed.
"A lot of people had us losing because it was our first time in," said Gates, who had 18 points, 11 rebounds and doubled his 3-point output for the season by making one in each half. "The first time in, we got a win."
One of the stingiest teams in the country held Missouri to 29 percent shooting in the first half and 38 percent for the game. The Tigers couldn't get a basket to fall from the 7:27 mark of the first half to 16:48 mark of the second; they fell far short of their average of 81.4 points per game.
"We were always fighting uphill," Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. "When you've got guys that normally score for you are not scoring, it puts a burden on those other guys."
The Bearcats (26-8) advance to a Saturday rematch with Connecticut, a rare early round pairing of Big East teams necessitated by the conference's record 11 bids to this year's tournament. The Huskies beat the Bearcats 67-59 in Cincinnati on Feb. 27, and coach Mick Cronin would rather be playing someone else.
"Absolutely," Cronin said. "The Big East is brutal. We've already played 20 of them. You'd like to avoid it. I understand the tournament committee would like to avoid it, too, but obviously it's unavoidable in certain situations."
Dion Dixon added 16 points, and Cashmere Wright had 11 points and seven assists for the Bearcats, who shot 62 percent in the second half and 54 percent for the game.
Cronin has led the Bearcats through years of slow, steady rebuilding, taking over one season after Bob Huggins' messy departure in 2005. Cincinnati last won an NCAA tournament game exactly six years ago to the date — a 76-64 decision against Iowa that was Huggins' last victory at the school.
Thursday's game pitted a team that allowed a Big East-low 59.2 points per game against Anderson's press-and-run attack. The Tigers had the experience, having won their opening game in the tournament each of the last two years, while the only Cincinnati player with NCAA experience was transfer Ibrahima Thomas.
But Missouri only forced 11 turnovers. On offense, the Tigers found themselves having to use more of the shot clock that they'd prefer, especially when Cincinnati switched to a zone.
Ricardo Ratliffe scored 13 points, but fellow starters Laurence Bowers, Marcus Denmon and Kim English were a combined 8 for 27 from the field for the Tigers (23-11), who finished the season losing five of six.
"It's hard to get into your defense when you're not making shots," Denmon said. "You can just keep playing defense for 40 minutes, but eventually you've got to put the ball in the basket."
Missouri took a 9-2 lead, then ground to a halt. Cincinnati countered with a balanced attack and plenty of and-1s to set up potential three-point plays — including three by three different players in a one-minute span late in the first half. The Bearcats led 39-28 at the break.
The Tigers didn't get a single point from their reserves in the first half, but Phil Pressley led a one-man rally with three baskets and one assist to cut the deficit to six midway through the second half.
But Gates began to take over from there. His inside bucket pushed the lead to 12 with 5:03 to go, and he helped account for Cincinnati's 21-10 advantage in second-chance points.
And then there were his 3-pointers, including one that made it 70-55 with 4½ minutes left. He was 2 for 12 from long range entering the game; he was 2 for 2 on Thursday.
"On one, the shot clock was running down. The second one, I don't know, really. I was just in rhythm. I just felt like it was a good shot and it went in," said Gates, laughing so hard he could barely finish the sentence.
Cronin chimed in: "You don't have to make excuses."