Central Florida pushed top seeded and 13th ranked Cincinnati Bearcats 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 gave the Bearcats a five point lead and some needed breathing room.
“Kevin Johnson made a big shot for us, obviously.” Head 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 with 21 points and forward Justin Jackson added 14.
The Bearcats were limited to 18 shots from the field in the second half but made 10.
Although the Bearcats pushed their second half lead to 45-35 after two made free throws by Kilpatrick, UCF put together an 11-2 run to cut the Bearcats lead to 47-46.
A box-and one defense, 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.
Kilpatrick said he had confidence his teammates could take over while he was being handled by UCF defenders.
“We have weapons, Kilpatrick said. “Everyone can shoot.”
UCF tied the game at 53 with about 2:55 left, and I was telling myself, “here we go again.”
Jackson scored in the paint with 1:37 to go for a 55-53 lead. After UCF “huge” center Justin McBride missed two free throws with 1:21 left and another player missed a three, 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 know 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.
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 lead to 12 points at 26-14.
Bearcats will play the Connecticut Huskies and the AAC “player of the year” Shabazz Napier in the semifinal of the tournament tomorrow night at 9:30pm on ESPN2.