Sunday, March 11, 2018

Cincinnati: 2017-18 American Men's Basketball Champions



ORLANDO, Fla. -- Gary Clark put Cincinnati ahead for good with a free throw with 4.3 seconds remaining and the eight-ranked Bearcats held on Sunday for a 56-55 victory over No. 21 Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship.

Clark finished with 20 points and the league regular-season champions rescued themselves for the second straight day with a stellar second-half performance, limiting Houston to 20 percent shooting and 18 points after halftime.

Cincinnati (30-4) earned the AAC's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament with its first conference tournament championship since the Bearcats won Conference USA in 2004.

Houston (26-7), which split a pair of games against Cincinnati during the regular season, lost for just the third time in its last 15 games and is headed to the NCAA Tournament, too.

Rob Gray led the Cougars with 17 points but missed a long 3-pointer in the closing seconds, then had a turnover that cost Houston a chance to try to win the game after Clark made one of two free throws after rebounding Gray's miss.

Corey Davis Jr., who had 15 points for Houston, went scoreless after helping the Cougars to a 37-35 halftime lead. Devin Davis added 13, including a jumper and layup that turned a one-point deficit into a 55-52 lead with 1:34 remaining.

Kyle Washington's 3-pointer tied the game for the final time, setting the stage for a suspenseful finish.

Houston made just 6 of 30 shots in the second half. Gray finished six of 22 from the field after scoring 33 in the Cougars' victory over Wichita State in the semifinals. His unforced error, a wild pass behind teammate Galen Robinson Jr., sailed out of bounds with 1 second left.

Cincinnati didn't shoot the ball much better after halftime, going six for 18. That didn't stop the Bearcats from getting it done on the other end, though.

The Bearcats rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat Memphis 70-60 in Saturday's semifinals, outscoring the Tigers 41-18 in the final 20 minutes.

Houston becomes the fourth team coach Kelvin Sampson has led to the NCAA Tournament, joining Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. The Cougars appeared in the NIT the past two seasons.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, will receive its eighth straight NCAA berth under coach Mick Cronin, who is in his 12th season with the Bearcats.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: The Cougars, who have won 12 of 15 following a 2-2 start to January, are one of the hottest teams in the country. That could make them dangerous entering the NCAA Tournament.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have been projected to be as high as a No. 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That would be a first for the AAC, which has never had a team seeded higher than fourth (Louisville, 2014).

UP NEXT

Houston: Cougars await NCAA Tournament bid.

Cincinnati: Bearcats also await word on who they'll face in their opening game.

Kentucky: 2017-18 Southeastern Men's Basketball Champions



ST. LOUIS -- John Calipari kept telling anyone who would listen that this group of Kentucky freshmen just needed a little more time than most to figure things out.

That faith was shaken when the Wildcats lost four straight games last month. But they delivered on their coach's optimism on Sunday.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 29 points, and Kentucky beat No. 13 Tennessee 77-72 for its fourth straight Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.

It's the 31st title in tournament history for the Wildcats, whose No. 4 seed in the event was the lowest in Calipari's nine seasons at the school. The Wildcats (24-10) were one defeat away last month from what would have been the longest losing streak in the Calipari era, but they have won seven of eight since -- including their first in three tries this season against the No. 2 seed Volunteers.

All in all, it's a Kentucky group that appears primed for next week's NCAA Tournament.

"A month ago, I wasn't sure we'd be in the tournament," Calipari said. "And then I had to ask ... `Does everybody get to go to the SEC tournament?' I wasn't even sure we'd get here. But I come back to this: We needed to lose those games. We needed to lose four in a row."

Despite racing to a 17-point lead in the first half Sunday, the Wildcats' seemingly annual SEC Tournament coronation was delayed by a Tennessee team trying to win its first title in almost 40 years.

But Gilgeous-Alexander capped his tournament Most Valuable Player performance by hitting the clinching free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining, sending the overwhelmingly Kentucky crowd of 18,974 into a wild celebration. The freshman guard finished 10 of 16 from the field with seven rebounds and a pair of steals.

Kevin Knox had 18 points for the Wildcats, and Quade Green finished with 10.

"Shai has the ball in his hands a lot during the game, and he's really grown over the year and be able to get his points and get other people involved," Knox said. "I think right now he's playing his best basketball because he's one of our leaders."

Admiral Schofield had 22 points and 10 rebounds for Tennessee (25-8), which was attempting to win its first tournament championship since 1979. Grant Williams added 15 points, while Jordan Bone scored 12 and Lamonte Turner had 10.

COLD-SHOOTING VOLS

A night after hitting 11 of their first 12 shots and 76 percent (19 of 25) in the first half of a semifinal win over Arkansas , the Volunteers didn't fare nearly as well early on Sunday. They made only five of their first 25 shots and fell behind 33-16 midway through the first half. Schofield, however, responded by scoring Tennessee's final 13 points of the half, capping a 15-3 run that pulled the Volunteers within 36-31 at halftime.

"We started the game and dug ourselves a hole and, obviously, they were making some shots," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "We weren't playing the way we were capable of; we just weren't locked in."

BIG PICTURE



Kentucky: The championship game appearance was the fifth straight for the Wildcats and their eighth in nine seasons under Calipari. Kentucky is 22-3 in the SEC Tournament under Calipari.

Tennessee: The Volunteers were picked to finish 13th in the SEC during the preseason, but they finished as the co-regular-season champions with No. 16 Auburn. Regardless of Sunday's result, Tennessee already had a spot in next week's NCAA Tournament. The trip will make Tennessee the fourth school Barnes has taken to the tournament, joining Providence, Clemson and Texas.

UP NEXT

Both teams wait on their NCAA Tournament opponents.

Georgia State: 2017-18 Sun Bel Men's Basketball Champions



NEW ORLEANS -- D'Marcus Simonds didn't play like the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in Georgia State's semifinal victory against Georgia Southern.

He had six points and five turnovers in 28 minutes before fouling out of the Panthers victory Saturday. But he was back in form Sunday, scoring 27 points as GSU defeated Texas Arlington 74-61 to win the Sun Belt Tournament championship.

The second-seeded Panthers (24-10) will be making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2015. Fourth-seeded UT Arlington, which upset Sun Belt regular-season champion Louisiana-Lafayette in the semifinals, fell to 21-13.

"He played probably the worst game of his life yesterday," GSU coach Ron Hunter said of Simonds. "I didn't say anything to him. I knew he would come back and dominate."

Simonds, who set the Panthers' single-season scoring record in the otherwise poor performance Saturday, was chosen the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

Devin Mitchell added 13 points before fouling out, and Malik Benlevi scored 11 for GSU.

"I was kind of lackadaisical (in the semifinals)," Simonds said. "I could have done better. I put the weight on my shoulders to play better and I did."

The Panthers, who set school records for 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made this season, connected on 8 of 17 from beyond the arc. The Mavericks made 4 of 25 3-pointers and shot 29.8 percent (17 of 57) from the floor.

"We said before the game that if they shot 25 to 30 3-pointers we would win," Hunter said. "That would play into our hands by making it a perimeter game."

The Panthers held Troy to 31.1 percent (14 of 45) in the quarterfinals and Georgia Southern to 39.6 percent (21 of 53).

"We set a goal of holding every team that we played in the tournament to under 40 percent shooting, and we did that," Hunter said. "We said if we did that we'd be able to win."

Johnny Hamilton led the Mavericks with 23 points and 14 rebounds, Erick Neal scored 12, Kevin Hervey had 11 and Kaelon Williams 10. Neal, who had averaged a tournament-best 27.5 points in the previous two games, made 2 of 15 shots, including 1 of 9 3-pointers.

"We needed to be aggressive and get the ball to the basket and we weren't able to do that the way we needed to," UTA coach Scott Cross said. "We didn't have the type of energy that we needed. If you are not bouncing around or flying around defensively, it is going to be hard to win any basketball game. We forced shots and that led to easy baskets for them."

GSU led by three at halftime, but UTA twice cut the lead to one early in the second half. Simonds scored four points during an 11-1 run that gave the Panthers a 46-35 lead.

After Hamilton made a free throw, Benlevi scored five points to start an 11-2 run that put the Panthers in command.

"Basketball is a game of runs," Neal said, "and we didn't have enough runs today."



Simonds scored 10 points as GSU opened a 22-15 lead midway through the first half. Hevery made a 3-pointer for UTA before the Panthers scored eight consecutive points to take a 30-18 lead. Wilson's three-point play ended the run and Hervey and Neal each made a 3-pointer to get the Mavericks within 33-30 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

UTA: In its first appearance in the Sun Belt title game since joining the league in 2013-14, UTA fell short of what would have been its second trip to the NCAA Tournament.

GSU: After winning its second Sun Belt tournament title in four years, GSU takes a four-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.

UP NEXT

UTA: Its season is over.

GSU: Waits to hear its destination in the NCAA Tournament.

Davidson: 2017-18 Atlantic 10 Men's Basketball Champions



WASHINGTON -- Bubble teams across the land were keeping an eye on the Atlantic 10 tournament final and Davidson, a school still waiting for its first victory in the NCAA tournament since Stephen Curry was leading the way.

The Wildcats were all too happy to disappoint those folks whose hopes hinged on their result Sunday.

Freshman Kellan Grady's go-ahead baseline floater with 74 seconds left ended a nearly 13-minute drought without a field goal for Davidson and lifted Curry's alma mater to a 58-57 victory over No. 25 Rhode Island for the A-10 title.

"I would say, 'I'm sorry,' but I'm not," said smiling senior Rusty Reigel, who was a freshman the last time Davidson participated in March Madness.

"We won, and we're going dancing, and I couldn't be happier for my guys and for everybody," added Reigel, fiddling with a piece of the net he had just helped cut down. "I just can't wait to get there next week."

Davidson (21-11) would not have gotten to join in the tournament fun with a loss Sunday.

Top-seeded Rhode Island (25-7), though, will be in the bracket despite coming up short in its try for a second conference tournament title in a row.

That means the Rams will take a bid from someone.

"I know some of the teams on the bubble probably aren't that happy with us right now, but we're playing for something," said A-10 rookie of the year Grady, who led Davidson with 17 points. "Our goal is to be playing our best in March, and we're really confident. Not only did we get there, but we think we can win in the tournament."

The Wildcats haven't done that since two-time NBA MVP Curry took the 2008 squad to victories over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before bowing out against Kansas in the Elite Eight.

This time, Davidson beat Rhode Island despite an 0-for-11 stretch that was closed by Grady's winning basket.

After he made that, Rhode Island had its chances to retake the lead. Among them: A baseline jumper by Stanford Robinson missed, but Grady stepped out with 10.8 seconds remaining while grabbing the rebound.

"Your heart kind of drops for a second," Grady said. "You realize you've got to guard for 10 more seconds. But we did another unbelievable job."

Reigel, whose brother is an assistant to coach Bob McKillop, saw the final opportunity for the Rams this way: "Pretty stressful. I was freaking out a little bit."

But with Grady forcing E.C. Matthews, who led Rhode Island with 20 points and eight rebounds, to his left, the Rams senior gave up the ball. Jeff Dowtin wound up trying a 3-pointer that missed.

It was Matthews' 3 with a little more than 3½ minutes left that capped an 11-point run and put Rhode Island ahead 56-52 before Davidson came back.

"Disappointing result there," Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said. "Having that four-point lead makes it just hurt."


Peyton Aldridge, the A-10 co-player of the year, added 13 points and seven rebounds for third-seeded Davidson, which was playing in its first conference final since joining the league in 2014 from the Southern Conference.

"Whoever is going to draw them," Hurley said, looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, "is not going to want to see their name next to them."

BIG PICTURE

Davidson: Needed this victory for an NCAA bid, given that it entered the A-10 tourney with an RPI of 74, a 108th ranking in strength of schedule and a 3-6 record against Quadrant 1 teams. Now the Wildcats get to play on, taking away an at-large berth from someone.

Rhode Island: A conference championship would have been nice, but a trip to the NCAA tournament is going to happen, anyway. The bad news for the Rams is that they have lost four of their past eight games.

Pennsylvania: 2018: Ivy Men's Basketball Champions



PHILADELPHIA -- Sitting on top of the rim, clutching the net that was just cut down, Darnell Foreman couldn't help but think of all of the great Penn players who won championships before him.

After a long wait and an unlikely turnaround, the senior guard can add his name to that list.

Foreman scored 19 points, AJ Brodeur had 16 points and 10 rebounds and Penn earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007 with a 68-65 win over Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament title game Sunday.

Ryan Betley added 17 points for the Quakers (24-8), who will be making their 24th appearance in the NCAAs.

"I wanted to be like Mike Jordan," Foreman said of the star Penn guard who led the Quakers to Ivy titles in 1999 and 2000. "Especially being a guard, you look at the past history of guards. The Ibby Jaabers, the Jerome Allens, even going back to Booney Salters. You want to be those guys. You want to be on the wall. You want that history. Now this team has it. This team is going to be remembered as the team that stopped the drought."

Senior Caleb Wood, a junior college transfer, drilled two straight 3-pointers, getting fouled on the second, to put Penn ahead 63-60 with 3:42 remaining. Betley followed with a 3-point play, before Harvard's Christian Juzang pulled the Crimson to 66-63 with a 3-pointer with 47.6 seconds to go.

Harvard trimmed Penn's lead to 66-65 on two Justin Bassey foul shots with 14.6 seconds left. But after Betley hit two free throws, Bassey and Juzang both missed potentially game-tying threes in the final seconds, and Penn fans rushed the court for a celebration a decade in the making.

"I didn't think it was possible for us to get to the NCAA Tournament until that horn went off," said third-year Penn coach Steve Donahue, who spearheaded the speedy turnaround after the Quakers sputtered through nine losing seasons in 10 years. "In a building I grew up in, and watching the kids storm the floor for our guys, (it was) magical. Unexpected, too."

Chris Lewis led Harvard (18-13) with 16 points, while Bassey had 15 and Seth Towns, the league's player of the year, finished with 13 before leaving the game with a knee injury with 8:20 remaining.

"Not having him on the floor certainly wasn't easy, but we still had opportunities to push through," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "And I'm very proud of my kids for battling through without Seth."

Harvard and Penn proved to be the top two teams in the Ivies this year after sharing the regular-season title with 12-2 conference records and then dominating Cornell and Yale, respectively, in Saturday's Ivy League Tournament semifinal games.

And after splitting their two regular-season meetings, both teams traded punches like heavyweight fighters in front of a packed crowd at the Palestra, Penn's home gym.

Fueled by a 16-0 run in which Penn was held scoreless for seven minutes, Harvard led 30-17 with five minutes left in the first half. That's when the Quakers turned things around, closing the first half on a 17-2 run capped by a Foreman 3-pointer right before the buzzer. Foreman, who sprinted right into the locker room as the Palestra crowd went wild, scored his 19 points all in the first half.

"That was huge for us," Brodeur said. "He gave us the spark we needed. That's just leadership."

The Quakers continued to surge after the break, with sophomore standouts Brodeur and Betley combining to score the first 11 points of the first half to put Penn ahead 45-32 and complete a 28-2 run spanning halves.

But trailing by 10 midway through the second half, Harvard reeled off a 13-0 run to take a 58-55 lead, sparked by 3-point plays from Bassey and Juzang.

Afterward, both coaches expressed amazement at the runs each teams made.

"I just thought the game had an incredible back and forth," Donahue said. "I had no idea we went on a 28-2 run -- that's crazy."

BIG PICTURE

Harvard: Despite Sunday's result, the Crimson continue to be the class of the Ivies with Amaker at the helm, having won six Ivy League championships since 2011 with NCAA Tournament wins in 2013 and 2014.

Penn: After rising to the top of the league faster than almost anyone expected, the Quakers are poised to remain there for a while with only two key players graduating and several highly touted underclassmen set to return from injury.

DANCING SHOES

Once a staple of the NCAA Tournament, Penn went to the tourney seven times between 1999 and 2007 before falling on hard times, due in large part to the rise of Harvard. The Quakers' last win at the Big Dance was in 1994 when they topped Nebraska in the first round, although they did put an upset scare into several teams since.

Can they do it again?

"I'll say this since I've been in the NCAA Tournament enough -- I don't know if you want to play someone like us," said Donahue, who led Cornell to the Sweet 16 in 2010. "We are older. We shoot the ball. We share the ball. And we're an elite defensive team. We can guard anybody. It's going to be fun."

PALESTRA MAGIC


Much has been made of the Ivy League Tournament being held at the Palestra since it began last year. But even if his Harvard team may have lost the home-court edge despite being the No. 1 seed, Amaker supports the decision.

"This place is considered one of the crown jewels of college basketball, and it's in our league," he said. "And that's a wonderful thing."

Donahue, who worked as a Penn assistant through the 1990s, has spent more time in the Palestra than most, and acknowledged the noise and atmosphere likely contributed to Penn's win.

"To me, there's nothing like this gym," he said.

UP NEXT

Harvard receives an automatic berth in the NIT by virtue of its top seed in the Ivies.

Penn is headed to the NCAA Tournament.