By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
Eds: No. 8 Cincinnati 56, No. 21 Houston 55.
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Mick Cronin doesn’t have a catchy sales pitch for the stingy brand of basketball No. 8 Cincinnati played to claw its way to the top of the American Athletic Conference.
Stellar defense was a big part of the team’s drive to the league’s regular-season championship. It also served the top-seeded Bearcats well while they were winning three games in three days to capture the American’s conference tournament title.
Now they’ll see how far it can carry them in the NCAA Tournament.
“I can sit here and tell you about the culture and try to sell you on everything that we build at Cincinnati,” Cronin said after Sunday’s 56-55 victory over No. 21 Houston in the AAC final.
Conference player of the year Gary Clark shrugged off three free throws down the stretch to put the Bearcats (30-4) ahead for good from the foul line with 4.3 seconds remaining. The last of his 12 rebounds provided the opportunity, with Houston’s Nura Zanna being whistled for a foul for making contact on the play.
Clark finished with 20 points and the Bearcats rescued themselves for the second straight day with suffocating second-half defense, limiting Houston — one of the league’s best offensive teams — to 18 points on 20 percent shooting, including 0-for-10 on 3-point attempts, after halftime.
“You can do all the talking you want, your kids got to want to win, and they have got to be willing to do the things that go into winning that do not show up in a stat sheet, that people don’t text message them about, that’s not going to get them on ‘SportsCenter,’” Cronin said.
“You have to have talent,” the Cincinnati coach added. “But you’ve also got to have guys that are willing to do the uncomfortable things that go into winning.”
Cincinnati earned the AAC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament with its first conference tournament championship since winning Conference USA in 2004. The Bearcats landed the No. 2 seed in the South Regional and will face No. 15 seed Georgia State (24-10) in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday.
Houston (26-7), which split a pair of games against Cincinnati during the regular season, lost for just the third time in its last 15 games and is headed to the NCAA Tournament, too.
The Cougars are the No. 6 seed in the West and will play their opening game Thursday against San Diego State (22-10) in Wichita, Kansas.
Rob Gray led Houston with 17 points but missed a long 3-pointer in the closing seconds, then had a turnover that cost Houston a chance to try to win the game after Clark made one of two free throws after rebounding Gray’s miss.
Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson thought Zanna shouldn’t have been charged with a foul as Clark came down with the rebound.
“I would like to have had that last play decided by the players on the floor,” Sampson said.
Corey Davis Jr., who had 15 points for Houston, went scoreless after helping the Cougars to a 37-35 halftime lead. Devin Davis added 13, including a jumper and layup that turned a one-point deficit into a 55-52 lead with 1:34 remaining.
Kyle Washington’s 3-pointer tied the game for the final time, setting the stage for a suspenseful finish.
Houston made just 6 of 30 shots in the second half. Davis missed all four shots attempted in the second half after going 5 of 7 on 3-pointers and helping the Cougars erase an early 10-point deficit to lead at the half.
Gray finished 6 of 22 after scoring 33 in the Cougars’ victory over Wichita State in the semifinals. His unforced error, a wild pass behind teammate Galen Robinson Jr., sailed out of bounds with 1 second left.
Sampson attributed his team’s poor shooting to fatigue, noting both teams were playing their third game in three days.
“I don’t care about the stats. … Writing about stats in not the story of this game,” Sampson said.
“Both these teams’ kids were exhausted. … You’re going to have games like that on three games in three days,” Sampson added.
Cincinnati didn’t shoot the ball much better after halftime, going 6 for 18. But that didn’t stop the Bearcats from getting it done on the other end of the floor.
The Bearcats rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat Memphis 70-60 in Saturday’s semifinals, outscoring the Tigers 41-18 in the final 20 minutes.
Cincinnati is making eighth straight to the NCAA tournament under Cronin, who is in his 12th season with the Bearcats.
Houston becomes the fourth team Sampson has led to the NCAA Tournament, joining Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. The Cougars appeared in the NIT the past two seasons.
Sunday’s defeat was disappointing but didn’t put a damper on a breakthrough season.
“Twenty-six wins. I’m not going to sit here and find something wrong with them right now,” Sampson said. “They fought their hearts out. Just came up a little bit short. But they’re still champions in my eyes.”
Houston: The Cougars, who have won 12 of 15 following a 2-2 start to January, are one of the hottest teams in the country. That could make them dangerous entering the NCAA Tournament.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats No. 2 seeding in the NCAA Tournament is a first for the AAC, which had never had a team seeded higher than fourth (Louisville, 2014).
Houston: First NCAA Tournament appearance under Sampson, Thursday vs. San Diego State in Wichita, Kansas.
Cincinnati: NCAA Tournament opener vs. Georgia State in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday.
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