NASHVILLE — At times, Texas could hardly catch a pass or make a shot during a first-half performance so woeful that the Bridgestone Arena crowd sarcastically cheered when the Longhorns finally scored a point after a 10-minute drought against Cincinnati.
But the Bearcats, seeded sixth in the East Region, squandered their 19-point second-half lead and needed a final scoring spurt in the waning moments to put away the 11th-seeded Longhorns, 65-59, in an NCAA tournament round-of-64 game on Friday.
“We’ve been in so many of these battles the last few years in the Big East,” Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin said. “We don’t know how to play with those big leads.”
Cincinnati (25-10) knows how offensively challenged Texas felt because the Bearcats faced similar shooting woes in their Big East tournament loss to Louisville. Aside from that performance, however, Coach Mick Cronin’s team finished the season strong, winning seven of eight games before the Big East final defeat.
Largely because of their defense, the Bearcats figure to be a formidable opponent against the winner of Friday’s game between third-seeded Florida State and 14th-seeded Saint Bonaventure in Sunday’s round of 32.
After the disastrous first half, Texas (20-14) got some momentum when J’Covan Brown fired a bounce pass to Clint Chapman, whose dunk whittled the deficit to five points with just less than eight minutes to play.
Soon after, Cincinnati’s Dion Dixon shot an air ball on a three-pointer, which led to a transition layup by Lewis. Then Texas’s Sheldon McClellan sank a baseline jump shot after his defender fell to pull within one point.
“We knew we would come back,” Texas Coach Rick Barnes said.
Freshman Jonathan Holmes scored a follow-up basket to tie the score at 52. But Yancy Gates scored inside, guard Cashmere Wright followed with a layup and Gates delivered the decisive basket, a mid-range baseline jump shot over Chapman.
“In the Big East, all the games are that way, by one or two points,” Gates said. “We knew our defense had to pick it up and that we needed to go at the basket.”
During the season, Cincinnati’s physical defense held opponents to 61.2 points per game. And the Longhorns felt the brunt of that defense, making just one of their first 15 field goal attempts.
Cheikh Mbodj grabbed an offensive rebound and scored a layup to push the Bearcats’ lead to 13-2 nearly nine minutes into action.
Chapman had two relatively easy passes ricochet off his hands out of bounds. In the first half, Texas collected just one assist and was outscored in the paint, 22-6.
Cincinnati guard JaQuon Parker held down Brown, the Big 12’s top scorer, through much of the first half. Brown finally got some separation late in the half, when he made a three-pointer and then a fall-away jumper to close the gap to 11 points in the final two minutes before halftime.
Texas, which narrowly made the tournament field as an at-large selection, has not reached the tournament’s Sweet 16 since 2008. After losing three first-round NBA draft picks, Barnes was forced to rely on a roster that included six freshmen as the Longhorns endured an uneven season.
The Bearcats reached the second round of the tournament last season before losing to eventual national champion and fellow Big East competitor Connecticut at Verizon Center.
“I won’t be satisfied until we win the national title,” Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick said.