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Cincinnati stays perfect in Conference USA

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- This was not the way Bob Huggins wanted
Cincinnati to head into a difficult stretch of the schedule.

Jason Maxiell had 24 points and eight rebounds Wednesday night
to help the Bearcats (No. 13 ESPN/USA Today; No. 18 AP) hold off East Carolina 84-78, a
win that saw the Bearcats alternate between dominant and
disinterested while nearly blowing a 20-point second-half lead.

Eric Hicks added 12 points for the Bearcats (14-1, 3-0
Conference USA), who have won three straight since losing to
top-ranked Illinois. Jihad Muhammad also had 12 points and several
key plays to help the Bearcats turn away rallies by East Carolina
(5-10, 0-3).

Corey Rouse had 21 points and 13 rebounds for the Pirates, who
fell to 0-7 all-time against the Bearcats. Mike Cook added 19
points.

The Bearcats have to hope this was an aberration heading into
Saturday's game with No. 19 Louisville. That opens a three-game
homestand that includes Charlotte -- a conference opponent that made
the NCAA tournament last year -- and No. 4 Wake Forest.

"I didn't want to have to go back and try to fix things two
days before we play Louisville," said Huggins, who declined to
elaborate. "I was hoping that the light had come on, that we knew
what we had to do, but that's apparently not the case.

"When you have to spend your time fixing things, that takes
away from your time to prepare."

Cincinnati needed a bit of time to take control of the game,
with the Pirates -- thanks partly to a rowdy home crowd -- hanging in
for most of the first half. But once their defense stepped up, the
Bearcats had several transition scores to build a double-digit
lead.

That lead -- which grew to 20 points early in the second half --
ultimately held up, though the feisty Pirates fought the entire
way. They outrebounded the Bearcats 47-32 and cut the deficit to
four points in the final 90 seconds, but could not get closer.

They twice were called for technical fouls in response to fouls
by Bearcats defenders, which seemed to illustrate a
we-won't-back-down mentality.

It just didn't amount to a win for a struggling team.

"We don't know how to play 40 minutes right now," ECU coach
Bill Herrion said. "It's not a moral victory by any stretch."

The difference proved to be Cincinnati's 20 points off 14
turnovers in the first half, which helped the Bearcats shoot 55
percent and build a 46-32 halftime lead. It reached 57-37 on a
two-handed slam by Hicks off a nifty feed from James White with
16:40 left.

"I guess mentally we just got real comfortable with the lead,"
Muhammad said. "We've got to keep it on for 40 minutes, get them
out of here so they have ... no thought in their mind or taste in
their mouth that they can beat us."

The Pirates did their part, refusing to let the Bearcats speed
out of sight. East Carolina committed just four turnovers and shot
47 percent in the second half. They also played scrappy defense,
holding Cincinnati to 41 percent shooting after the break.

"It's the biggest game of the year for them, so they came out
with more energy than we did in the second half," said Maxiell,
who went 10-for-17 from the floor and had three blocks. "We're
upset. Our effort in the second half wasn't as great as it
should've been."

Trailing 78-68 with about 3 minutes left, Japhet McNeil drove
inside for a score. Then Rouse completed a three-point play when he
was fouled on a layup in transition to cut the deficit to 78-73.

The Pirates' defense then got a stop, but -- in what became a
recurring theme of missed chances -- Cook missed a layup off a long
pass. Rouse rebounded and was fouled, but went only 1-for-2 from
the line to pull to 78-74 with 1:32 to play.

White then hit two free throws on the other end for a six-point
lead, and the Pirates got no closer than five points the rest of
the way.

Muhammad made several key plays to hold off East Carolina runs.

After a three-point play by Hicks gave the Bearcats a 64-53
lead, Muhammad had a one-handed steal of the ensuing inbounds pass
and hit two free throws to increase the margin to 13. A few minutes
later, he drained a straightaway 3-pointer that gave Cincinnati a
77-66 lead with about 4 minutes left.

"I think we started believing we could win the game," Cook
said. "But you have to take that approach when you come out of the
locker room."