|Henry Sims, left, and Yancy Gates went toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow Thursday afternoon. (US Presswire)|
After two days of yawn-inducing basketball -- some of it even eye-gouging -- the afternoon session of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden Thursday delivered the goods.
First it was Syracuse coming back to beat UConn 58-55 to advance to the semis, and then Cincinnati and Georgetown needed 50 minutes to decide who gets the Orange Friday night. It's Cincinnati by way of a 72-70 double-overtime victory. The Bearcats: holding seed, winning again and getting production from all over the floor. They're starting to look like they did in January, when the team was rolling, beating good teams on the road and looking like a top-two or -three team in the Big East.
“To go 2 for 21 from 3 and win the game against Georgetown is unthinkable, it’s just unthinkable,” Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin said.
The Bearcats outscored Georgetown 13-4 in the last 6:02 of regulation, and then the Hoyas had a span of nearly seven minutes when they only put up five points, three of which came off of free-throws. It came to bea game of runs. Had Otto Porter and Henry Sims not hit game-tying shots at the end of regulation and the first overtime, Cincinnati wins -- maybe a little too easily.
One win in a game on a neutral floor doesn't complete the return to form, but it's a really good sign. Cincy trailed for most of the game, but it stayed in it thanks to Yancy Gates' play. And how often have we been able to say that in the past? Gates has been improved ever since the brawl (I hate to mention it, but it is the only frame of reference for his turnaround in this case) and become a guy who isn't a black hole when he's on the floor.“It’s like a proud parent,” Cronin said. “We’ve been working on this guy a long time. Yancy, and Dion Dixon, they’re traditional guys. They’re young seniors. … His best basketball is still way ahead of him. He’s been called upon to do a lot — too much — to rebuild our program. … For me, two things, I’m happy for him, but also as a coach, it’s great when you know you have a horse, and you get him the ball and he’s delivering. It gives you options.”
Used to be in past seasons, and even in this one, that Cincy wasn't functional when Gates was in the game. He took the wrong shots at the wrong times. Made dumb fouls. Killed on-court chemistry. But that's not the case anymore. Gates had a skilled big man go at him all day -- and the Cincy senior responded beautifully. The final tally:
Gates: 23 points and eight rebounds, three steals on 10-of-19 shooting. Turnovers: none.
Sims: 22 points and 15 boards.
Both played 46 minutes. It was awesome. The Big East is almost assuredly never going to be the conference of big men that it was for 15 years, but this was a fine fight to see. Gates spoke about not wanting to just be one-and-done in the Big East in his final season. He wanted to see Friday night -- badly.
“Henry Sims, he’s a great player, so I was trying to guard him as tough as I can, and we try to call upon us. It was a good battle between two big men, two seniors, too,” Gates said.
The maturity in Gates is easy to see. His head just seems clearer. The taunts still exist, but he lifts up his teammates now. After a lot of made baskets and big rebounds Thursday afternoon, Gates was talking with teammates. Encouraging. Reaffirming communication on what went right on the previous play, or where he was going to be on the defensive one upcoming. It's a great thing to see, this big man playing like a big man and a most valuable one at that.
As a team, we don't know if Cincinnati is reliable. As a man, with less than 10 games remaining in his career, it seems Gates is.