7:00 PM ET, December 22, 2004
Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati, Ohio
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Only about 2,000 fans braved a snowstorm to see Cincinnati (No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 22 AP) try to stay unbeaten. For the first 20 minutes, they had to wonder whether the harrowing trip was worth it.Steven Smith's electrifying performance kept La Salle close, but James White led a second-half run that sent Cincinnati to an 84-63 victory Wednesday night that turned out to be quite a show in a nearly empty arena.Smith finished with a career-high 35 points, and Cincinnati came away with an unblemished record."We knew we had to pick it up," said White, who had 12 points in the decisive 20-7 run. "In the first half, we didn't play with a lot of energy. Maybe it was in our mindset because there weren't a lot of people there. I don't know what it was."The Bearcats improved to 9-0 for the fourth time in the past 10 seasons. They opened 13-0 last season but finished 25-7 and lost to Illinois in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.Smith scored 23 points in the first half against a defense geared to stop him but couldn't single-handedly overcome Cincinnati's spurt that opened the second half and put it out of reach.La Salle (1-7) lost its fifth straight, adding to a tough opening stretch for first-year coach John Giannini. He came from Maine to resurrect the program from a 20-loss season and a rape scandal that prompted the men's and women's basketball coaches to resign."We're going to struggle for a while, but these are the kind of guys I want to go through it with," Giannini said. "We're hanging in there with people. I'm proud of what our players are doing, given the circumstances."Giannini inherited a roster thin on talent and expectations -- the Explorers started three freshmen and a sophomore. Their only accomplished player is Smith, a junior forward who leads the team in scoring (22.3 points) and rebounding.The Bearcats couldn't find anyone to guard him in the first half, when he went 10-of-13 from the field and scored 23 of La Salle's 31 points -- four shy of his career high in only 20 minutes.He finished 13-of-23 from the field, fouling out with 3:05 to go."The 23 shots are well above anything I've shot in college ball," Smith said. "But I felt good in warmups. My first couple of shots went in. I saw the way they were trying to play me and that I could still get off my shots, so I kept shooting. I think everybody else fed off of that."White and Eric Hicks each scored 15 points, leading six Cincinnati players in double figures. Darnell Harris added 19 points for La Salle, going 5-of-8 from behind the arc.The officials got caught in traffic snarled by the snowstorm, forcing the game to start seven minutes late. Only a few hundred fans were in the stands for warmups, providing a silent, surreal atmosphere in the 13,176-seat arena."I've never seen that since I've been in Cincinnati," marveled junior point guard Chadd Moore, who had 10 assists. "That was strange."The small crowd settled in and watched Smith put on a show.Smith took the Explorers' first three shots and made every one, including a 3-pointer and a three-point play that put La Salle up 8-3. The Explorers looked comfortable playing in front of a crowd that was typical in size for one of their games.Cincinnati, playing its third game in five days, was sluggish and sloppy. Coach Bob Huggins benched Jason Maxiell, the Bearcats' top inside defender, after Smith got off his first three shots without a problem. Smith later hit a driving layup and a 3-pointer that made it 20-14, giving him 15 points -- more than Cincinnati's entire roster at that point."You can't take days off," said Huggins, who was upset with the effort. "We take days off. The honest-to-God truth is these guys haven't come to play every day."The Bearcats started putting some energy into their defense, which had limited the previous three opponents to 29.3 percent shooting. Steals led to three quick baskets, and Moore had two 3-pointers and a fast-break layup in a 17-0 run that put Cincinnati ahead 31-20.Smith kept La Salle within striking distance until the start of the second half, when Cincinnati's tightened defense forced him to miss his first four shots while the Bearcats pulled away.Cincinnati played its second straight game without junior forward Armein Kirkland, who has a sprained ankle. Kirkland was the Bearcats' leading scorer in four of the five games before getting hurt.