The Tulsa men’s basketball team had its winning streak halted at six games by Cincinnati, but clinched the fourth seed with a win at ECU.
Riding their second-longest winning streak of the Frank Haith era, TU stormed into Cincinnati prepared for its toughest game of the season. A win would mean clinching the fourth seed and earning a first-round bye in the American Conference tournament. It would also mean having to beat the 11th-ranked ranked Bearcats on the road without the help of starting point guard Sterling Taplin, who sat out with a sprained ankle. The Golden Hurricane hung tough for a while, battling the second-best defense in the country and even carrying a lead into the second half. But in the end, Cincinnati held on for the 82-74 victory.
Junior Etou shouldered the offensive burden without Taplin, netting a game-high 21 points. Only Corey Henderson joined him in double figures with 11, but in a balanced attack, six other players scored at least five points. Curran Scott and DaQuan Jeffries led the team off the bench with nine and eight points respectively, the latter adding a steal and three blocks. Elijah Joiner, earning the start in place of Taplin for the first time all season, had arguably the best game of his young career with six points and six assists. The Golden Hurricane’s 18 assists as a team matched their season-high.
Contrary to what was expected, the game looked like it would be a shootout in the opening minutes. Each team blitzed the other from behind the arc — at one point there were five consecutive possessions with a three pointer — and after five minutes, Tulsa held a 17-15 advantage. Cincinnati struggled against TU’s undersized lineup; their motion offense looked as fluid as it had all season and time and again forced the Bearcats to switch into unfavorable matchups. A Martins Igbanu jumper with just over a minute to go tied the game, and two free throws from Curran Scott a possession later gave the Golden Hurricane an improbable lead going into the second half.
The magic would not continue for very long. Scores from Etou and Igbanu extended TU’s lead to eight points and had Hurricane fans beginning to smell an upset, but a dunk from forward Gary Clark energized his team and the fans at BB&T Arena. The bucket started a dominant 24-4 run to put Cincinnati back in control. Clark, who had dealt with foul trouble and was held to just two points in the first half, contributed eight points over the stretch. He would finish with 17 points, which tied point guard Jarron Cumberland for the team lead. As a team, Cincinnati shot 55 percent from the floor and a scorching 68 percent from three, with a season-high 15 makes.
Next up for TU was a much easier matchup against the 10-17 East Carolina Pirates, one of the punching bags of the AAC. ECU played well for its home fans in the first half, but they simply didn’t have the personnel to deal with the Golden Hurricane, which had six players score in double digits for the first time this season. After a closely contested first half, Tulsa would pull away in the second and earn the 72-58 win.
Igbanu led the way with 16 points and eight boards in just 25 minutes, while Etou added a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. DaQuan Jeffries, the Long Arm of the Law, blocked another three shots, Curran Scott continued his sterling play with 12 points on 4-6 shooting and Elijah Joiner recorded a season-high seven assists off the bench.
With Sterling Taplin back in the starting lineup, the ball zipped around the perimeter like a pinball in the first half, finding open shooters and cutters in tight spaces as TU racked up an impressive 13 assists on 15 buckets. Even so, heroic shooting performances from Shawn Williams and B.J. Tyson kept the Pirates afloat, as they scored 24 of ECU’s 39 points in the half between them. At the break, TU held just a two-point advantage.
Neither team was able to get much going in the second, but as the Golden Hurricane worked the ball into Igbanu on the block, they were steadily able to increase their lead. ECU found TU’s zone nigh-impregnable and turned ice cold from the field; with 11 minutes left in the game, they had scored just two points since halftime. They couldn’t cut the deficit to single digits the rest of the way as Tulsa coasted to the victory.
TU shot just 40 percent from the floor and an abysmal 13-22 from the foul line, but they were able to completely stymie ECU, who connected on just 35.5 percent of field goals. Tulsa also outrebounded the Pirates 44-36 and set a new season high in assists with 19.
I don’t want to take all the credit for Elijah Joiner stepping up in a big way after I shouted him out in last week’s issue, but I think something like 75 percent is warranted. You hate to see it come at the expense of Sterling Taplin (and one has to wonder how the Cincinnati game would have turned out if the team had had Taplin’s steadying presence), but it’s great for him to get these high-leverage minutes heading into the conference tournament.
Speaking of Taplin, I was glad to see the Golden Hurricane’s impressive team ball movement continue into the ECU game. Teams often discover new things about themselves when players are forced to take on additional ball-handling duties after their point guard sits out, and sometimes (see the Washington Wizards this year) people misinterpret that as the team being better in his absence. Taplin’s seamless reentry into the starting lineup quickly removed any possibility of that being the case.