PHILADELPHIA -- With about two minutes left in the first half, Mick Cronin lost, in order, his cool, his jacket and nearly his mind.
Two minutes into the second half, Cincinnati lost its big man.
And so it followed suit that the Bearcats, in their first real show-me game of the season, lost to Villanova 72-61.
The irony in this loss is Cincinnati answered the question that dogged its 15-0 start.
Yes, the record is inflated by one of the weakest schedules (rated 324th) in the country, (a byproduct more of down years from Xavier, Dayton and Oklahoma than it is cowardice from the coaching staff) but the Bearcats can play.
They are not top-four elite in the Big East but they are good enough to be in the mix, with a scrappy backcourt, a mountain on the boards in Ibrahima Thomas and most important, a thinned-down Yancy Gates, who is finally playing with both the intensity and ability his high school career promised.
They turned a 19-point deficit into a seven-point ballgame -- a testimony to both their feistiness and Villanova’s basketball narcolepsy -- and were in a game that statistically they had no reason to be in.
Here’s the caveat: If the Bearcats want to move out of their overcrowded residence in the middle of the pack and towards the top of the league, they need to have a group therapy session on how to keep their composure.
“You can’t leave an arena in the Big East thinking, ‘We could have won,’’’ Cronin said. “I’m not saying we would have won, but we could have won. To play in this league, you have to play smart.’’
And the Bearcats didn’t -- not long enough, anyway.
They sent a Villanova team that shoots 76 percent from the free-throw line to the charity stripe 20 times in the first half and their coach went gonzo (or maybe more accurately, Gonzo) when his team was already losing its cool.
His team down nine and playing far too fast, Cronin went bananas when Nova's James Bell wasn’t called for a foul on an offensive rebound.
He screamed his rage at referee John Cahill, earned a technical, had to be restrained by his assistants, tore off his jacket and glared at Cahill while Corey Fisher sunk the freebies.
“I’m not going to comment on the officials at all,’’ Cronin said. “You’re not going to get me in trouble.'’
Two minutes into the second half, Cincinnati made bad things worse. Ibrahima Thomas, the 6-11 big man who, together with Gates gave the Bearcats a terrific size advantage, was whistled for a push-off on a made Gates bucket. As he came down the other end, he was whistled for fouling Mouphtaou Yarou, complained about it and earned a technical.
That was three fouls in 20 seconds and the end of Thomas, who fouled out with the technical. (For the record, Cronin sort of commented on the officiating, saying "Thomas got that foul. Well, a foul was called on Thomas for standing up straight.")
It doesn’t matter whether they were the right calls or the wrong calls -- and, for the record, they weren’t reprehensibly egregious.
Big East games are like hand-to-hand combat, physical survivals of the fittest, and tend to be called tightly. Calls are going to go against you. Shots aren’t going to fall. You’re going to end up, like Gates did, with a band-aid over half your eyeball and not necessarily reap the reward for the effort with a foul call.
The teams that win in this conference know how to handle all of that and keep playing.
The coaches that win time their meltdowns a little better, too -- picking a moment where their emotion can serve as motivation instead of piling on a team already in disarray.
“We all complain to the refs and then we can go back and look at the film and realize they could have called 50 fouls,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “But it’s so intense, you just get caught up in it.’’
Cronin criticized himself -- not for the technical but for not putting his team in any real dogfights early. He thinks his team suffered a bit of culture shock early, made fat by too many easy games that they lost their heads when the frenzy of a tight game hit them square.
His players concurred.
“I think we got caught up in all the fouls being called in the first half,’’ Rashad Bishop said. “After the first half, we got into the mentality that this is the Big East. Nothing is going to be easy.’’
Here’s the kicker. After Thomas was sent to the bench, the Bearcats settled down and the Wildcats lost their poise.
Cincinnati completely turned the table on Villanova, using a half-court trap to force turnovers and get the Wildcats in foul trouble. By game’s end, Wright’s entire starting lineup was playing with four fouls and the Wildcats were actually whistled more than the Bearcats (35 to 33).
Twice the Bearcats cut it to seven and ultimately ended up leaving Villanova feeling far better than a team that shot 2-of-20 from behind the arc would normally have the right to feel.
“I think we’re real good,’’ Bishop said. “We came to Villanova, got down early and fought back. That showed a lot of maturity. That’s the kind of game where, last year, or usually we would have given up and we didn’t.’’
Maturity. That’s the word Bishop used.
An interesting choice considering the way the first half went.
“Yeah,’’ Bishop conceded. “That’s something we have to work on.’’