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January 21, 2008

Fans key for resurgent Bearcats

After drawing pathetic crowds of 6,748 and 6,784 early in the season for games against Fairfield and USC Upstate, the Bearcats had the biggest turnout of the season with 10,684 fans showing up for the 62-59 win over Pittsburgh Saturday.

Although it's a far cry from the sellout crowds UC would routinely draw just a few years ago, the recent increase in turnout over the past few games has given the Bearcats a significant home court advantage just in time for Big East conference play.

Head Coach Mick Cronin called his team's three-point win over No. 15 Pittsburgh a "benchmark win" for the program. "To me Pitt is different than any of the other teams we have played," said Cronin. "They physically challenge you. Their physical and mental toughness is second to none in this conference and that's why they win."

"They remind me of the Cincinnati Bearcats of Conference USA that I was a part of. You didn't want to see us on your schedule because you might beat us but it was going to take your best game of the year."

The Bearcats certainly had one of their best games of the year, but Pittsburgh managed to take a lead into halftime. Pittsburgh led 28-27 going into the second half, but it could have been worse for the Bearcats.

They trailed by four when they held the ball for the last shot of the half. They struggled to get a good look, but Rashad Bishop bailed them out when he nailed a deep three with a man in his face to cut the lead to one as the crowd erupted.

After the game, Adam Hrycaniuk said the crowd definitely made a difference for the team. "When the crowd gets involved in the game it's easier to play and we do all we can to make them happy," said Hrycaniuk. "Hopefully it's going to be loud in the next few games."

Midway through the second half, Pittsburgh's Sam Young tied the game at 40 with two free throws. The Bearcats then clamped down defensively and went on a 13-0 run, capped off by a Jamual Warren jumper.

"I think we play better defense when we are at home because we got the crowd and we got our fans here," said Warren. "We play better defense for a longer period of time (at home). When we are away we kind of take plays off and when we are here we play harder."

The Bearcats led by 13 with 6:32 to go in the game but a few mental mistakes allowed Pittsburgh to get back in the game. The Panthers cut the lead to four with 2:42 to go, but Deonta Vaughn said he was never worried. After all, the Bearcats survived similar situations against Syracuse and Villanova.

"I didn't feel that we were in danger," said Vaughn. "We were at home, we had our crowd behind us and we have a lot of people supporting us here. We were determined to get the victory."

Pittsburgh ended up having a chance to tie the game with a three on their last possession, but the crowd was roaring and Bishop stepped up again, this time with a huge block.

"Our late game execution defensively on the last possession was flawless," said Cronin. "Where we switched everything and they ran everything at us, three hand-offs, two fade screens and we executed everything and then blocked the shot without fouling."

Road wins have been tough to come by in the Big East; the home team is 34-10 in league play so far this year.

"A lot of schools in the Big East aren't losing at home," said Warren. "It's hard to go somewhere and get a win. That's why when you get a win away from home its so big because the majority of the ones you are going to play away you are going to lose."

The Bearcats haven't lost in Cincinnati since Dec. 19 2007, when they played the still undefeated No. 2-ranked Memphis Tigers.

Cronin said he thinks having home-court advantage in the Big East is worth "six to eight" points. "Especially when your fans are a factor," said Cronin. "With our students the way they have been the last three games, it's been a major factor for us."

The Bearcats will look to go 4-0 at home in conference play Wednesday when Connecticut travels to Fifth Third Arena.


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