MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Central Florida pushed top-seeded and 13th-ranked Cincinnati to the brink of an upset, but Bearcats freshman guard Kevin Johnson would not allow his team to exit early.
Behind a late 3-pointer from Johnson, the Bearcats held on Thursday for a 61-58 victory in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference.
Johnson’s 3-pointer from the right corner with 35.1 seconds to go gave the Bearcats a five-point lead and some needed breathing room.
“Kevin Johnson made a big shot for us, obviously,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “I have a lot of confidence in Kevin because he has a lot of confidence in himself.”
Johnson said he was not surprised to have the play drawn up for him.
“I know Coach Cronin had confidence in me,” Johnson said. “And throughout the game I had a nice rhythm defensively and offensively. We needed someone to step up and hit a shot. So when I shot it I was pretty confident.”
Despite getting extra defensive attention in the second half, guard Sean Kilpatrick led Cincinnati (27-5) with 21 points and forward Justin Jackson added 14.
UCF guard Isaiah Sykes finished with 21 points before departing with 11.8 seconds left because of an apparent right knee injury. Forward Kasey Wilson scored 11 points and guard Calvin Newell had 10.
The Bearcats were limited to 18 shots from the field in the second half but made 10.
“It was a great game; I’m really proud of our team,” UCF coach Donnie Jones said. “These guys came so far. We may have lost on the scoreboard, but those guys had a victory here with the way they competed in this tournament and at the end of the year.
“We had a great opportunity down the stretch and obviously we didn’t make the plays.”
UCF (13-18) had won back-to-back games entering the quarterfinal, including a double-overtime victory over Temple in the tournament’s opening round. And it looked as if they would add a third straight against the conference co-champion.
Although the Bearcats pushed their second-half lead to 45-35 after two free throws by Kilpatrick, UCF put together an 11-2 run that ended on a 3-pointer in the right corner by forward Kasey Wilson to trim the UC lead to 47-46.
A box-and-one defense — with Newell blanketing Kilpatrick — slowed the AAC first-team selection in the second half. Kilpatrick took nine shots from the field in the first half but was limited to three in the second half.
“We worked on that in the (hotel) ballroom (before the game),” Jones said. “We put it in (midway through the second half) when it was a one-point, three-point game. I thought it was very effective. We tried to force some other guys to make plays for them to get them out of rhythm.”
Kirkpatrick said he had confidence his teammates could take over while he was being hounded by Newell.
“We have weapons,” Kilpatrick said. “Everyone can shoot.”
UCF eventually tied the score at 53-53 with 2:55 left when Sykes dropped in a free throw to complete a three-point play.
The Bearcats’ Jackson scored in the paint with 1:37 to go for a 55-53 lead. After UCF center Justin McBride missed two free throws with 1:21 remaining and Wilson misfired on a 3-point try, Johnson calmly dropped in a 3-pointer from the right corner for a 58-53 advantage. Kilpatrick added three free throws to cap the Cincinnati scoring.
“They probably deserved to win the game,” Cronin said of UCF. “It’s a credit to Donnie Jones and his staff and the kids for the character they showed.
“They were playing a box-and-one on (Kilpatrick), so someone else was going to have to make a shot. We knew we could get that open shot in the corner.”
Cincinnati threatened to pull away in the opening half, but UCF fought back to close the gap to 30-27 at halftime.
Jackson and Kilpatrick each had 12 points in the first half to pace the Bearcats, who shot 40 percent from the field. Sykes led UCF with 10 points.
After falling behind 10-4 in the opening minutes, the Bearcats put together an 11-0 run to go up 15-10 and eventually expanded the advantage to 12
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