With less than 40 seconds left in Cincinnati's biggest victory of the season, Kenyon Martin and Pete Mickeal pumped their arms, egging on the United Center crowd. As time ran out in the Bearcats' 77-68 victory against seventh-ranked North Carolina tonight in the Great Eight Classic, the contingent of Cincinnati fans made itself heard, with chants of "U-C! U-C!"
Martin and Mickeal led their team, too, with 16 and 21 points respectively. The Bearcats, ranked No. 1, had yet to defeat a quality opponent. Now they have their big win, and they renewed their claim on the top ranking in front of a national television audience.
"They're one of the best teams I've seen in several years," said North Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge. "I'm not into comparing teams. I'm not saying Duke [last year] was better, or Cincinnati is better."
The knock against the Bearcats has been the team's wavering attention span. Several times they have built big leads against lesser opponents, only to allow them back into the game. While they did the same tonight, allowing the Tar Heels to cut a 12-point halftime margin to within two with 12 minutes 30 seconds left, the Bearcats finished tonight's game as they did each of their other five--with a victory.
"I think it's a big deal for us to come out and jump on an opponent early," Martin, a 6-foot-9 senior, said. "It was a big win for us. I think Coach [Bob] Huggins was 0-3 against them, so it was nice to get him the victory."
The Tar Heels, who were led by forwards Max Owens and Jason Capel with 18 and 17 points, respectively, double-teamed Martin less than most other teams have this season.
"It was a bad decision," Martin said. And it led to North Carolina's second loss to a top-five team in a week.
Last Wednesday, the Tar Heels were handed their first loss in a home opener since 1928 by Michigan State, another physical, bruising team.
While Martin says the No.1 ranking means little to him and his teammates, it's clear so far this season, he is the one player who has mattered most to his team. While Mickeal, sophomore forward Steve Logan and freshman guard DerMarr Johnson, from Riverdale, Md., all cause concern for Cincinnati's opponents, Martin is the undeniable star of this team.
"I think he's as good a player as there is in the country," Huggins said. And if Martin and his talented supporting cast keep performing as they have, Huggins, now 1-3 against North Carolina, could find himself holding onto the nation's top ranking for a long time.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see them win the national championship," Guthridge said.
After a dismal road trip during which Gonzaga has lost twice to ranked opponents, it might seem as if the Bulldogs--who made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament last season--are just another flash in the pan.
Bulldogs Coach Mark Few disagrees, of course, but so does Temple Coach John Chaney, whose Owls handed Gonzaga a 64-48 loss.
"That's one of the better teams that we've played," said Chaney, whose team has played Miami (Ohio), Florida State and Wake Forest this season. "They don't normally miss free throws and they don't normally miss easy shots."
Gonzaga (4-2) made just 19 of 62 shots tonight, led by Casey Calvary with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting. In the first half, the Bulldogs missed 26 shots, eight of which were shorter than eight feet. Had they made half of those, they could have gone into halftime tied at 29. Instead, they trailed 29-21.