TULSA — With six minutes left, Tulsa was sitting pretty.
Hosting No. 14 Cincinnati on Wednesday night at the Reynolds Center, TU jumped out early, battled throughout and then put together what looked like a finishing stroke, building an 11-point lead.
Only, the Bearcats declined to wilt.
Cincinnati outscored the Golden Hurricane 16-3 over the final 6:01 and escaped Tulsa with a 57-55 conference victory that may come back to hurt in March.
“Everything’s gotta go well for you to win a game against a team the caliber of Cincinnati,” TU coach Frank Haith said.
Everything did go well, from a 9-0 lead at the outset to a 52-41 lead on a layup by Sterling Taplin with six minutes left.
But that would be TU’s last field goal.
The final six minutes, the Golden Hurricane scored just three free throws. They also missed two shots, committed five turnovers, fouled four times and missed two free throws — both the front end of 1-and-1s.
It was a blueprint for how to lose a big lead at the end of a basketball game.
Down nine after two Bearcat free throws, Troy Caupain stole the ball from Pat Birt on one end, and Kyle Washington hit a jump shot to make it 52-45 with 5:13 left.
TU’s Junior Etou hit two free throws to rebuild the lead to nine, but UC’s Jacob Evans picked off a pass from Jaleel Wheeler and finished a breakaway dunk, and then buried a 3-pointer to cut it to 54-50.
Tulsa tried to shorten the game by extending each possession deep into the shot clock, but the plan backfired. In the final, fateful six minutes, the Golden Hurricane only got off two shot attempts.
“I think we were aggressive enough,” Haith said.
“Couple bang-bang plays didn’t go our way at the end, but you’ve got to give Cincinnati credit for making plays at the end.”
On Tulsa’s final two possessions, Birt committed a turnover and Taplin, racing the length of the court in just 4.4 seconds, dribbled into traffic and never got a shot up.
“It was good to see where we are as a team,” Wheeler said. “They played well and made a couple key plays at the end of the game. We’re just gonna grow from it and learn from it.”
Wheeler led TU with 13 points, while Etou and Martins Igbanu each scored 10. Taplin scored nine points, but had just two assists with three of his team’s 16 turnovers.
Caupain led the Bearcats with 15 points, while Gary Clark had nine points and 12 rebounds. Cincinnati was outrebounded 38-8, but made up for it with 10 steals.
Haith said his team’s late collapse was not necessarily a product of youth and inexperience in big games.
“They (Cincinnati) are an older group,” he said. “We didn’t make plays we needed to make. I’m not gonna make excuses and put it on our youthfulness.
“We’ve had some good wins with late execution by a young team. We have.”
It was a game effort by Tulsa, which dropped to 12-9 overall and 6-3 in American Athletic Conference play. But leading the league’s best team (Cincinnati is 20-2 overall and 9-0 in The American) by 11 with six minutes left and then letting it slip away is the opposite of a moral victory.
It’s especially bitter for a team that hosts second-place SMU (19-4, 9-1) on Saturday. Haith has to ensure now that his guys don’t lose twice to the same team in one week.
“That’s gonna be our job here coming in the next couple days,” Haith said.
Beating Cincinnati would have been a pretty pelt for Tulsa to hang on its postseason wall — a great RPI win.
“No way I’m looking at it like that,” Haith said. “We’ve got SMU in here on Saturday, and that’s what I’m focusing on.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.