PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — No. 15 Cincinnati won a conference title for the first time since 2004, and coach Mick Cronin didn't care that it was shared.
The Bearcats (26-5, 15-3) were picked to finish fourth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll, a league that currently has five teams ranked in the top 20. Cincinnati clinched a share of the regular-season crown with 24 points from senior Sean Kilpatrick in a tough 70-66 win over Rutgers on Saturday. The Bearcats will be the top seed in the conference tournament.
"I am really proud of the guys," Cronin said. "To be able to grind out a regular-season championship, 15-3 in this league is pretty strong." Two hours after beating Rutgers, Cincinnati settled for a share of the title when No. 11 Louisville routed No. 19 Connecticut 81-48.
Cronin didn't seem to care. "In my mind, we won a championship no matter what. Whether it is shared or not, you're conference champs," he said. The tiebreaker based on the teams' results against UConn, Memphis and SMU failed to determine the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament in Memphis, so a coin flip settled the question.
Before the Louisville-UConn game ended, Cronin said he likes Cardinals coach Rick Pitino so much, he could not root against him. His only regret was the coin toss was held at Louisville. No matter — the Bearcats still won it.
"I requested that coach Pitino and I play one game of liar's poker," Cronin quipped. "We used to do that all the time — for fun, obviously." Cronin was not upset that his team struggled against Rutgers, which has now lost 13 of 17 games and will be the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament. He said they were tired after an emotional win over Memphis on Thursday.
Kilpatrick, who didn't score a basket less than six minutes remained in the first half, carried the team late. He converted a three-point play and drove the lane for a layup in the final 68 seconds as the Bearcats rallied from a point down late to win.
"I saw the (shot) clock going down and there was like six seconds left and I said: 'You know what? If I get fouled, I get fouled, and then Coach isn't going to be mad,'" Kilpatrick said. Justin Jackson had given Cincinnati a 65-64 lead with 1:46 to play, scoring underneath after Kadeem Jack blocked his original shot in the paint.
"We have a couple of tremendous closers in Justin and S.K.," Cronin said. "Justin's putback was sheer will. He was just not going to be denied." Kilpatrick pushed the lead to four points with his back-door layup and free throw. The senior closed out the scoring with 17 seconds to play after Kerwin Okoro scored on a goaltending call against Jackson.
Jackson finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds despite second-half foul trouble. The Bearcats did not have another player in double figures, but they limited Rutgers to two points in the final 3:16. J.J. Moore had 19 points and Jack added 15 and 12 rebounds for the Scarlet Knights, who rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to threaten Cincinnati's chances for its first share of a league title since winning Conference USA in 2003-04. Myles Mack added 10 points and nine assists.
The Scarlet Knights face 10th-seeded South Florida on Wednesday. "We kind of had a rough season all season so we know that every game could be our last," Jack said. "So I think we need to play like they say - a wounded dog is the worst to face, so I think we need to go and play like that because our backs are definitely against the wall."
Trailing 63-58 after Kilpatrick's 3-pointer rolled in with 6:12 to go, Rutgers held Cincinnati scoreless for more than four minutes and took a 64-63 lead on a jumper by Mack with 3:18 remaining. Both teams missed shots and free throws — Jackson missed two with 2:54 left — over the next four possessions before Jackson scored underneath to put Cincinnati ahead for good.