7:00 PM ET, March 12, 2004
CINCINNATI (AP) -- A convincing win gave No. 13 Cincinnati a chance to play for a tournament title and make up for a total embarrassment.Tony Bobbitt led a 3-point blitz that set up a 66-46 victory over Saint Louis in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament Friday night.The Bearcats went 5-of-6 from behind the arc during a 19-point run in the second half, sending them to the championship game for the third time in the past four years.Bobbitt had four 3-pointers for a team-high 12 points. The Bearcats (23-6) were 10-of-21 overall from behind the arc against a defense that dropped back quickly to take away the fast break and tried to slow the pace."The main thing is, we didn't want to play at the same tempo they play," Bobbitt said.In the other semifinal, DePaul rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Alabama-Birmingham 75-74, setting up a rematch between teams that played last week. Cincinnati lost at DePaul 68-65, costing the Bearcats a chance to win the regular-season title outright.Bobbitt exchanged words with coach Bob Huggins during that game, and twice fouled a DePaul player shooting a 3-pointer. Now, the Bobbitt and the Bearcats get a chance to show they're much better than they looked in Chicago last week."We played about as dumb as any team I've ever had has played," Huggins said. "We didn't do things very intelligently."Five teams wound up tied for first, with DePaul getting the tournament's top seed through the tiebreakers.The tournament is being played at a downtown arena a short drive from Cincinnati's campus. The Bearcats won the tournament in 1996, 1998 and 2002 -- the last two times in the same arena.To return to the title game, Cincinnati had to beat a team that it manhandled last month. Saint Louis (18-12) looked intimidated, got outrebounded by 22 and lost by 25 points on Feb. 25, a defeat so one-sided that coach Brad Soderberg compared it to boys playing against men.He demanded toughness from his team this time around, and got it. All it did was slow Cincinnati for one half."They looked like a team that's ready to make a long run in the (NCAA) tournament," Soderberg said. "They don't win just by being athletic. They stuck it to us on the defensive end."Josh Fisher led Saint Louis with 14 points. The Billikens shot a season-low 27.5 percent from the field, including 4-of-23 from behind the arc.James White and Field Williams hit consecutive 3s as Cincinnati pulled away and Saint Louis went cold early in the second half. The Billikens missed eight consecutive shots and had three turnovers during the decisive 19-point spurt.Bobbitt had consecutive 3s in the middle of it -- Billikens point guard Anthony Drejaj dove all-out to try to steal one pass to him on the perimeter, but missed and landed hard on his chest, skidding across the floor as Bobbitt shot. Armein Kirkland finished the run with a jumper for a 50-30 lead.Soderberg called a timeout to steady his team, but it was too late. Saint Louis never got closer than 13 points the rest of the way.Saint Louis drains the shot clock with a deliberate offense and slows opponents by quickly dropping back on defense. As a result, the Billikens allow only 58.8 points per game, the fewest in the conference.They imposed their pace in the first half, which ended with Cincinnati ahead only 27-23. Demoted point guard Nick Williams got into the game and hit a pair of 3-pointers that helped the Bearcats build their lead to as many as eight.In one telling moment, forward Chris Sloan held his ground and took a bruising charge from White, showing the Billikens weren't going to step aside this time around.They couldn't catch up, either. Drejaj opened the second half with a 3-pointer that cut the Bearcats' lead to 27-26, but Saint Louis crumbled as soon as Cincinnati started hitting 3s over the Billikens' packed-in defense.