CINCINNATI -- A few tears, a frenetic finish, a crowd-pleasing win. Maybe now Cincinnati can move beyond Bob Huggins' ouster.
Freshman forward Yancy Gates had his second career double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds Thursday night, and Cincinnati held on for a 65-61 victory over West Virginia in Huggins' tearful homecoming.
"I've got enough memories to last a lifetime," Huggins said. "This is a special place. It's always going to be a special place in my heart."
Gates, who was recruited by Huggins to play at West Virginia, helped Cincinnati (18-10, 8-7 Big East) get a double-digit lead that was barely enough. He made a clinching free throw with 3.1 seconds left, drawing a huge cheer from the less-than-capacity crowd of 11,332.
"I knew it was going to be like this before the season even started," said Deonta Vaughn, who added 13 points. "When we knew West Virginia was going to be here, we said it was going to be like a Xavier game. There was going to be a lot of people here wanting to see Huggs. We weren't worried about Huggs. We were worried about getting this for the NCAA tournament."
It was an important win for the Bearcats, who came into the game ninth in the Big East and need a strong finish to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since Huggins left.
The 55-year-old coach cried during a pregame tribute, then watched the Mountaineers (19-9, 8-7) get their three-game winning streak snapped. Alex Ruoff scored 18 points, but was only 3-of-15 from the field and missed a pair of 3-point attempts in the final 30 seconds.
The Mountaineers gave away their last chance when Devin Ebanks stepped on the baseline while trying to drive to the basket with 7.2 seconds left.
Those were the only sad moments for Huggins, who rebuilt the Bearcats into a national power during his 16 seasons, making the NCAA tournament the last 14.
"So many great memories," Huggins said. "So many great memories of so many wonderful, wonderful guys. So many great memories of walking in here with 13,176 (fans) and those people just rooting their hearts out with the love for Cincinnati basketball when I was here. Sixteen years is a long time."
Shortly before the start of the 2005-06 season, Huggins was ousted by school president Nancy Zimpher, who didn't like the basketball program's image or the coach's drunken driving arrest. It was an ugly divorce that divided the community. Zimpher was booed when her name was mentioned at a sporting event. One large sign directly behind the Bearcats' bench on Thursday referred to her as the "wicked witch."
With Zimpher ready to leave for the State University of New York and the Bearcats on the upswing again, the university tried to make Huggins' homecoming a moment for healing. Signs saying "Thanks Huggs" on one side and "Go Bearcats" on the other were handed out to fans.
When Huggins took the court with 2:40 left in pregame warmups, fans stood and gave him a respectful ovation. Huggins hugged Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin -- a former assistant at Cincinnati -- and pursed is lips as he looked around the arena during the anthem, fighting back emotion.
With his team huddled around him, Huggins watched a tribute to his career on the videoboard before the tip-off. His players then surrounded him and clasped their hands above his head as fans cheered. Huggins cried as he waved to the crowd, then dried his face with a large white towel dotted with sports drink emblems.
There was one reminder of the lingering damage: empty seats in the corners of the upper decks. There was seldom an open seat when Huggins was around.
After the tribute, the Bearcats set about trying to win back their crowd and getting back into their locker room. Cronin moved them into a secondary locker room and took away their official practice gear after their front line played soft in a 72-63 loss to Louisville on Saturday.
Gates made his first five shots over West Virginia's smaller front line, helping Cincinnati pull ahead 17-12. Gates finished with a career high in points.
"We worked on that all week in practice," said Gates, who finished 9-of-11 from the field. "We knew they were small and liked to flop a lot, so we worked on turning around and shooting the open shot."
The Mountaineers snatched the momentum by going to a 1-3-1 zone defense that confused the Bearcats and set up a 15-2 run. The back-and-forth pace held -- five ties, nine lead changes. Cincinnati opened a 10-point lead in the second half, but Larry Davis drew Cincinnati's third technical foul for something he said to an official after his shot was blocked with 1:45 to go. Ruoff's two free throws tied it at 60.