CINCINNATI (AP) -- Muscular forward Eric Hicks wrapped his arms
around his former coach, Bob Huggins. Cheek-to-cheek, they
squeezed, talked and cried.
The tears were just starting to flow.
There were more embraces all around Saturday after Hicks scored
18 points and led Cincinnati to a nostalgic 78-75 victory over West Virginia (No. 18 ESPN/USA Today, No. 16 AP), one that could extend the Bearcats' streak of 14
NCAA tournament appearances.
"That was our Super Bowl," interim coach Andy Kennedy said.
It felt like a title game.
Ousted coach Huggins attended a game at the arena for the first
time since he was forced out last August. He got a standing ovation
and hugged the Bearcats' five seniors during pre-game festivities --
a surreal start to an important game.
The Bearcats (19-11, 8-8 Big East) felt they needed a
high-profile win to strengthen their credentials for the NCAA
tournament. A team that has been in turmoil since Huggins'
departure in August earned it with big contributions from its
seniors and two clinching free throws from its freshman point
"I just came out with energy," said Downey, who went 0-for-4
and failed to score in his last game. "We couldn't let the seniors
go out with a loss."
West Virginia (20-9, 11-5 ) didn't have much at stake in its
final regular-season game. The Mountaineers had already clinched
third place in the Big East and were guaranteed a first-round bye
in the conference tournament.
Coach John Beilein was pleased with the Mountaineers' grit under
the circumstances, staying with the revved Bearcats right to the
"I think we proved out point, the fact that we handled it well
and, believe it or not, should have momentum going into the
tournament," Beilein said. "We might be the only team in the
country to have momentum going into the tournament after a loss."
Kevin Pittsnogle led the Mountaineers with 23 points, and Mike
Gansey went 5-of-6 from behind the 3-point arc while scoring 20.
The Bearcats' final home game showed they still haven't gotten
beyond Huggins' ouster. He repeatedly got standing ovations from
the capacity crowd of 13,176, which also chanted for school
president Nancy Zimpher to give Kennedy a contract.
The program is still at a crossroads.
After Downey made his two clinching free throws, Hicks jumped
into the student section and Kennedy got a hug from Huggins.
Kennedy then thanked the fans for supporting the team through its
tribulations, adding, "One last thing: Huggs, we love you,
"I thought it took a lot of courage for coach to come,"
Kennedy said afterward. "It shows you what kind of man he is. It's
a tribute to these seniors. They wanted him to come. I thought it
was fitting going against his alma mater in a game that decided our
Huggins was invited by Hicks, one of the five seniors who
received framed photographs of themselves at midcourt during a
pre-game tribute. Huggins stood at an opposite end of the court
while the seniors were introduced.
Hicks then led the seniors over to Huggins, who embraced each of
them while the crowd exulted. Hicks wiped away tears with his white
warmup shirt after the embrace. Huggins dabbed a tear from the
corner of his right eye.
"I wanted to be here, but I didn't want to do anything they
(the school) didn't want me to do," Huggins said.
While the two of them embraced, Hicks thought back to his three
years under Huggins.
"Everything just came back and it was a very emotional
moment," he said.
West Virginia tried to overcome the Bearcats' emotion by getting
the ball inside to the 6-foot-11 Pittsnogle, who likes to shoot
3-pointers but could do more damage inside. Pittsnogle is 5 inches
taller than anyone on the Bearcats' front line.
He shook loose from the 6-foot-6 Hicks and made a layup that
started a 9-0 run and put the Mountaineers up 16-12 and got the
Cincinnati's tight man-to-man defense -- its trademark under
Huggins -- started taking a toll, forcing the Mountaineers to rush
their shots. The defense fueled a 15-2 spurt capped by Hicks'
emphatic dunk, putting the Bearcats ahead to stay 33-23.
Muhammad hit a jumper and a pair of 3's during an 11-1 spurt
that built the lead to 48-35 early in the second half.
A pair of 3's by Gansey cut it to 66-64 with 5:03 to go, setting
a back-and-forth tone for the rest of the way. The Bearcats held on
by going 3-of-5 from the free-throw line in the final 12 seconds.