CINCINNATI -- The small crowd was quiet. The game quickly fell into a slog. Nothing was quick, nothing was easy -- until Sean Kilpatrick came off the bench.
The redshirt freshman scored 18 points, giving Cincinnati (No. 25 AP) some spark in a listless game, and the Bearcats bounced back from their first loss of the season by beating South Florida 74-66 on Wednesday night.
Cincinnati (16-1, 3-1 Big East) was coming off a 72-61 loss at Villanova that ended its 15-0 start, tied for second-best in school history. The Bearcats had played two high-profile games in a row, at home against Xavier and then its first Big East road game.
The homecoming lacked something until Kilpatrick and the rest of the backups got going. The Bearcats got 39 points from their reserves.
"That's our job, for us coming off the bench," Kilpatrick said. "When you have guys like that -- energetic guys especially -- then you have an advantage over a lot of people."
The Bearcats were lethargic and trailed until Kilpatrick entered and scored 12 in the first half, putting them ahead to stay. His 3-pointer with 12 minutes left gave Cincinnati an 11-point lead.
"That young freshman they've got is a pretty good player," South Florida coach Stan Heath said. "I thought he impacted the game pretty well in the first half. I think Cincinnati is going to be a formidable opponent throughout the league for the rest of the year. I think they're for real."
South Florida (6-12, 0-5) made several runs and cut the deficit to four twice, but faded and lost its seventh in a row. Ron Anderson Jr. had a team-high 13 points.
Senior forward Darnell Wilks made six free throws and a dunk to keep Cincinnati ahead down the stretch, matching his career high with 12 points. The Bearcats needed help up front: Power forward Yancy Gates had nine points and only three rebounds, and small forward Ibrahima Thomas fouled out with 6:12 left and no points with two rebounds.
"South Florida's as good on the front line as anybody you'll play against," coach Mick Cronin said. "Thomas fouling out didn't help us. Yancy had to play with some fatigue when they got back into the game."
The Bulls outrebounded the Bearcats 32-25 but hurt themselves with 18 turnovers.
"I don't think we played particularly great -- not that we've played great all year long -- but we had miscues with turnovers," Heath said. "Some of them I can understand, some are a little baffling to me. We just kind of gave the ball away."
Cincinnati got off to that 15-0 start while playing in a half-empty home arena most of the time. The Bearcats drew their first capacity crowd for the previous home game, a 20-point win over crosstown rival Xavier, and were hoping to keep their 13,000-seat arena full the rest of the way.
Only 6,201 showed up for the Bulls, providing a lethargic mood that seemed to carry over to the court. Cincinnati shot only 33 percent while falling behind 25-19, unable to make open shots or stop the Big East's worst offense. South Florida came in averaging a league-low 62.5 points per game.
The Bulls pulled ahead despite guard Hugh Robertson picking up three fouls in the first 6:27, sending him to the sideline.
Kilpatrick came off the bench and brought the Bearcats some energy. He got a rebound and drove the length of the floor for a layup, then hit a long 3-pointer that completed a 10-point run and put Cincinnati ahead to stay 29-25. Kilpatrick had 12 points in 12 minutes during the half, which ended with the Bearcats up 37-32.
Another 3 by Kilpatrick gave Cincinnati a 52-41 lead with 12:15 to go, matching the Bearcats' biggest of the game. When South Florida trimmed it to six, Kilpatrick hit another 3 to blunt the comeback. He finished 4 of 5 behind the arc.
A driving layup by Jawanza Poland got the lead down to 56-52, but he picked up his fifth foul the next time down the court. Poland had a team-high 10 points when he fouled out.
"With him out of the game, we didn't have all the weapons we need to have," Heath said.