EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They lasted longer than Coppin State and New Mexico State, but the Virginia Cavaliers didn't stick around long enough to stop Cincinnati's roll through the NCAA East Regional.
Maybe the Bearcats will finally get a severe test from North Carolina East Regional
in tomorrow's regional final, but they've done everything as planned through the first three rounds. The Cavaliers rallied in the second half and led with 11 minutes left before the relentless pressure that is the Bearcats' trademark under coach Bob Huggins produced a 71-54 victory at the Meadowlands Arena and a spot in the Elite Eight.
The Cavaliers (21-9) were down seven at the half, but they began to solve the traps of Cincinnati (27-4) and went ahead 44-43 on sophomore guard Cory Alexander's three-pointer with 11:25 left. Cincinnati was up 47-46 when senior guard Nick Van Exel dropped in two three-pointers during a decisive 10-0 blitz that left the Bearcats' band of junior-college transfers one victory away from their second straight trip to the Final Four.
"I think it's slipping away all the time," Huggins said, but he didn't have anything to worry about.
The Cavaliers, who mustered just four baskets in the final 11 minutes, got the difference back to eight, before Van Exel showed off the Bearcats' quickness and nastiness. Defending a three-on-one break, he stole Scott Smith's bounce pass and hustled it downcourt to Erik Martin for an uncontested dunk and a 62-52 lead with 3:36 left. Van Exel talked trash to some cheerleaders, and the Bearcats gleefully poured it on.
It was another frustrating game for Van Exel, the Great Midwest Conference Player of the Year who managed just 10 points in the first two rounds. He made his first two shots and those two huge threes for 19 points, but in between he went 21 minutes without a point, got hit with a technical and missed an open lay-in. He finished 6-for-21 from the field, but had 11 assists, five steals and easily won his matchup with Alexander, the Atlantic Coast Conference second-team all-star who was limited to 11 points on 3-for-14 shooting.
"He's [Van Exel] definitely everything he's hyped up to be," Alexander said. "He stepped it up in key situations, and that's what good players and seniors are supposed to do."
If Van Exel struggled at times, his teammates thrived around the basket, where senior center Corie Blount had 19 points and 11 rebounds and senior forward Martin had 15 and 12, respectively. Cincinnati pounded out a 48-32 edge on the boards and forced 21 turnovers.
"Coach Huggins and I discussed the importance of rebounding in a meeting last night," Blount said. "I don't want to say they [Virginia] weren't moving their feet, but they just tried to push us out of the way. They're bigger than us, but we just kept battling."
Besides losing the rebounding battle it won over second-round opponent Massachusetts, Virginia put the ball in the wings and corners too often. Junior Burrough stood up to the Bearcats with 15 points and eight rebounds, but he didn't have nearly enough help.
Virginia started the second half with a 10-2 rally before succumbing.
Van Exel scored a season-low three points in a second-round rout of New Mexico State, but he made a three-pointer and a two in the first 40 seconds, and Cincinnati enjoyed another quick start.
Cincinnati's margin never got below five points in the first half. The Bearcats' stunning quickness was distilled in a rapid sequence that included a three-point play in transition by Van Exel and Blount's rejection of Jason Williford.
Cincinnati's 31-24 halftime lead meant that Coppin State, its first-round victim, was the only opponent to score 30 first-half points in the Bearcats' past seven games. The difference could have been bigger, but Cincinnati was unable to take advantage of its 15 offensive rebounds and the Bearcats committed as many turnovers, nine, as they forced.