CINCINNATI — Rutgers was doing exactly what it wanted on defense, clamping down on Cincinnati’s guards. Even then, the Scarlet Knights still couldn’t contain Sean Kilpatrick.
Kilpatrick scored 19 points and the 24th-ranked Bearcats intensified their defense in the second half, overcoming a 10-point deficit to beat Rutgers 62-54 on Wednesday night for a sweep of their season series.
Cincinnati (17-4, 5-3 Big East) blocked eight shots, forced 21 turnovers and held the Scarlet Knights to 24 points in the second half. The Bearcats also won at Rutgers 68-58 on Jan. 12.
Myles Mack scored 15 points to lead the Scarlet Knights (12-8, 3-6), who have lost four in a row with an offense that can’t find any consistency. On Wednesday, they couldn’t hold onto the ball.
“When they turned their intensity and defensive pressure up, we didn’t have a response,” Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. “We had a lot of turnovers.”
The Bearcats trailed by 10 early in the second half and didn’t lead until Kilpatrick’s fastbreak layup put them ahead with 11 minutes left.
“When they needed it, they kind of looked to him,” Rice said. “There were a couple of shots that he hit that I thought we had the shot challenged and we were there, but he was just better.”
Point guard Cashmere Wright hit a 3-pointer — his only field goal — that put Cincinnati ahead to stay.
“Tonight we could have easily got beat,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We could have easily gone down. And guys showed fortitude and dug in.”
Cincinnati had eight days off following its 57-55 loss at Syracuse, giving Wright more time to recover from a sprained right knee. Wright missed one game and returned at Syracuse even though the knee wasn’t fully healed. He played 29 minutes and went only 2 of 13 from the field, missing seven of eight shots from behind the arc.
Wright started Wednesday but picked up his second foul at the 16:07 mark and headed to the bench. He was limited to 20 minutes and finished with six points and three assists on 1-of-6 shooting. He also had three turnovers and exchanged words on the bench with Cronin during a timeout.
Justin Jackson had seven points, seven rebounds and six blocks for Cincinnati, giving the Bearcats a spark after they fell behind by double digits. The Scarlet Knights repeatedly drove toward the basket and tossed up soft shots that were swatted away.
“You can’t go off of one foot in this league and expect to get a layup,” Rice said. “That just doesn’t happen. We’re going to have to work on that.”
Kilpatrick has carried the offense while Wright was either sidelined or limited by the injury, averaging 23.5 points in the four games. He missed his first four shots Wednesday, and the Bearcats’ offense bogged down again. He finished 5 of 13 from the field and 3 of 8 behind the arc.
“We started off sluggish, and that’s something we can’t do for the remainder of the season,” Kilpatrick said. “As you see, it started off bad. That’s something we can’t get accustomed to.”
Cincinnati missed its first nine shots from long range and opened the game only 2 of 13 from the field, helping Rutgers pull ahead 13-5. The Scarlet Knights never trailed, leading by as many as nine in the half.
Mack leads Big East guards in shooting percentage and averages a team-high 12.8 points, but had been in a shooting slump during the Scarlet Knights’ previous three losses. He was only 3 of 16 from 3-point range during the three games.
He didn’t start Wednesday, coming off the bench at the 14:33 mark. He had a steal and layup, four free throws and a 3-pointer that helped Rutgers hold a 30-22 lead at halftime.
Wright picked up his third foul only 53 seconds into the second half but stayed in the game. Wally Judge’s two free throws gave Rutgers its biggest lead, 32-22.
That’s when Kilpatrick asserted himself. He made a driving basket and a pair of 3s, helping the Bearcats cut the lead to 36-35 with 14:49 left. Kilpatrick got a loose ball and drove for a layup that gave Cincinnati its first lead, 42-40, with 11:06 to go.
Wright missed his first four shots, but made a long 3-pointer from the top of the arc that gave Cincinnati a 49-46 lead. The Bearcats never trailed again, finishing it off with 11 free throws down the stretch.