<
>

Bearcats defense hooded Golden Eagles

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Three straight Conference USA losses left Cincinnati (No. 21 ESPN/USA Today; No. 24 AP) in a tough spot. All the Bearcats can do now is win
and hope for a lot of help.

Jason Maxiell scored 20 points and Eric Hicks had 18 points and
12 rebounds Wednesday night, setting up an 83-51 victory over
Southern Mississippi.

Hicks and Maxiell did most of the damage for Cincinnati (19-6,
7-4 Conference USA), which relies too heavily at times on the two
burly power forwards. The Bearcats' offense was unbalanced and out
of sync while they lost those three conference games, dropping them
into the unfamiliar role of league also-ran.

They know they can't afford another loss.

"We were just trying to get back on track," Hicks said. "We
need to get back on the right track fast. That was a game that can
help us go that way. We got some confidence back."

They didn't need much more than their two power forwards to
handle the Golden Eagles (10-14, 1-11), who have lost six in a row
for the second time this season. Cincinnati dominated the boards
44-19 and scored nearly half of its points from close range.

Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy has a short roster and
a group of mild-mannered players, making it tough to match up
against the conference's top teams.

"We're just a team that needs to learn how to try before we do
anything else," Eustachy said. "We try in spurts. We don't have a
competitive makeup. That's just how it is, who we are.

"When you've got the ref hugging you at the end of the game
feeling sorry for you, it's bad."

After leading by only six points at halftime, the Bearcats
pulled away from the conference's last-place team. Hicks and
Maxiell each had two baskets in a 12-3 spurt that opened the second
half and broke the game open.

Rashaad Carruth led Southern Mississippi with 16 points.

Cincinnati is the nation's best at making opponents miss,
allowing them to make only 36.4 percent from the field. The Golden
Eagles shot 38.5 percent and rarely got a second chance when they
missed -- only five offensive rebounds in all.

Hicks had 22 points, his career-high, in an 85-66 loss at DePaul
on Saturday. He followed with a 9-of-14 shooting performance
against the Golden Eagles, who double-teamed him and switched
defenses but couldn't stop him.

Cincinnati point guard Chad Moore had the flu, leaving the
position in the hands of Jihad Muhammad, who was in a shooting
slump over the past four games. He made a nifty pass through
traffic to Maxiell for a dunk, and made a running scoop shot that
tied it at 8.

Muhammad finished with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, his highest
point total in 12 games. He had stayed in the gym until midnight,
refining his jumper to end the slump.

"I went through that my freshman year in junior college," said
Muhammad, in his first season at Cincinnati. "You've just got to
fight through it."

Once Muhammad and the Bearcats' other guards starting hitting
from outside, the Golden Eagles had too many problems to handle.

"In the second half, I thought we passed the ball, we shared
the ball," Bearcats coach Bob Huggins said. "We were more into
doing what we need to do. I think if we will just play together,
we'll be fine. I think our problems come when guys try to do things
on their own."

The lead changed hands five times before Cincinnati pulled ahead
to stay. The Bearcats spread out the defense and lobbed the ball
inside to Maxiell and Hicks, who are much wider than anyone on the
Golden Eagles' front line.

The forwards used their girth to clear room, then muscled inside
for easy baskets. In one sequence, Hicks missed a close-up bank
shot, and Maxiell plowed a path to the basket, got the rebound and
was fouled. His two free throws put Cincinnati ahead 36-27, its
biggest lead of the half.

The power forwards combined for 24 of Cincinnati's 36 points,
underscoring their dominance. They also helped the Bearcats control
the boards 21-7 in the first half.