DAYTON, Ohio -- It seemed more like a weigh-in before a boxing match than a basketball game, let alone the second round of the NCAA Midwest Regional. There was more yapping yesterday between Cincinnati and Michigan State than on Oprah.
"I felt like I was playing on the playground," said Bearcats guard Anthony Buford. "When I'm in the playground, I shoot the ball well."
Said Spartans guard Mark Montgomery: "When you play for inner-city schools like Cincinnati, Detroit or DePaul, the players like to talk about it. But once it's over, no one wants to go outside, put on boxing gloves and fight about it."
It was the fourth-seeded, 12th-ranked Bearcats who had the last word, not to mention the last laugh, yesterday at the University of Dayton Arena. With a 77-65 victory, Cincinnati moved into the regional semifinals against ninth seed Texas-El Paso Friday in Kansas City, Mo.
The Bearcats also hoped they moved into the big time.
"I would hope a win like this proves we're for real," said Buford, who scored a team-high 21 points on seven-of-11 shooting, including three of four three-pointers. "We came up with a big win at the right time. Look at our defense in the second half. We held Michigan State to 28 percent."
With the help of its stifling defense similar to the "amoeba" used by Nevada-Las Vegas in its national championship run two years ago, Cincinnati (27-4) built a 16-point lead late in the first half, withstood the shots that helped the Spartans cut their deficit to four three times and put the game away with a late 8-2 run for a 68-58 lead.
"We got a little bit tired at the end of the first half and we lost some of our lead," said Bearcats coach Bob Huggins. "At halftime, we challenged them to be a little more aggressive in the second half. I thought we continued to attack them to the end of the game, and that's what we have to do to be a good basketball team."
Cincinnati used one of its four defeats this season to prepare for yesterday's game. In December, the Bearcats blew an 18-point lead and lost to Michigan State in East Lansing, 90-89. Last year, they blew a similar lead to the Spartans and lost by two.
Yesterday, Cincinnati saw its big lead down to seven by halftime and to four after Dwayne Stephens hit a three-point shot on Michigan State's first possession of the second half. But this time, Buford and fellow senior Herb Jones (15 points), as well as juniors Corie Blount (14 points) and Nick Van Excel refused to let the Bearcats fold.
"When we played Michigan State in December, we went in thinking we could win and came out of there knowing we had won," said Buford, one of seven junior college transfers on the Cincinnati team. "But today, we made sure that we didn't mess up. I think they probably expected us to, but we didn't."
Said Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote: "Give them credit. They came up with some big plays when they had to."
There was the possession after the Spartans had cut Cincinnati's lead to 54-50 midway through the second half. Van Excel missed, and again, backup guard Erik Martin scored on a spin move. Then Jones stole a pass and scored off a two-on-
one fast break. Another turnover led to a 15-footer by Buford.
Still, the Spartans had their chances. They cut it down to four again, 60-56, on a free throw by Shawn Respert with 5:48 to go. But Van Excel answered with a short baseline jumper and, after a miss by Michigan State center Mike Peplowski, Martin scored a crucial three-point play to push Cincinnati's lead to 65-56. The Spartans got no closer than seven.
Asked if yesterday's victory will finally get the Bearcats some respect, Van Excel shook his head. "It's too late for respect," he said. "We just need to keep advancing."