CINCINNATI (AP) – Justin Jackson saved his best game for a big moment in Cincinnati basketball history.
The Bearcats senior scored 17 points as Cincinnati pulled away for a 65-57 win over Southern Methodist on Wednesday night in the first game for both teams in the new American Athletic Conference.
Despite slight foul problems and a knee injury that cost him less than a minute on the clock, Jackson came up with six rebounds while tying his season high with five blocked shots — all in the first half — and setting a career high with five steals.
Teammate Sean Kilpatrick was asked if the game was Jackson’s best.
“By far,” Kilpatrick said.
“Definitely,” Jackson agreed. “I really didn’t know I had five steals.”
Coach Mick Cronin also mentioned the 6-foot-8 Jackson’s 16 deflections on defense, the most by any player in Cronin’s eight seasons with Cincinnati, he said.
“Justin Jackson was as good as you could possibly be today, probably in every phase of the game,” Cronin said. “It’s almost impossible to have a better stat line than he did today. Right now, he’s playing like one of the best big guys in the country.”
Kilpatrick overcame a second straight poor shooting night to finish with 13 points and Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas each added 10 as the Bearcats (12-2) extended their winning streak to five games.
“Shaquille Thomas and Jermaine Sanders also gave us a lift as well,” Cronin said. “That’s important for us. We’ve got to be able to win games with (Kilpatrick) struggles.”
Kilpatrick, who went into the game leading the AAC with an average of 19.1 points per game, is a combined 5 for 25 over his last two games.
“It’s how the defense is playing me, and (shots are) just rolling in and out,” Kilpatrick said. “Shooters aren’t going to hit every shot every night. I’m not really worried about it.”
Markus Kennedy was the only Mustang to reach double figures, finishing with 12 points in a foul-plagued 27 minutes as SMU (10-3) was held to its second-lowest point total of the season. The Mustangs saw their winning streak snapped at five games.
“Jackson was great in the first half,” SMU coach Larry Brown said. “His energy and his five blocked shots were great. They weren’t shooting it well, and I think his pure will and energy gave them the lead at halftime. Second half, we had 11 turnovers. We turned it over too much. We put them on the line too much — 31-9 (foul shots). You are not going to have too much success like that. We turned the ball over 17 times on the road. Our defense was pretty solid, but Markus Kennedy getting in foul trouble kind of hurt us.”
A crowd of 7,239 at 13,176-seat Fifth Third Arena watched the fledgling AAC make its Cincinnati basketball debut. SMU, after playing its first game in 12 days, is scheduled to return home to face No. 17 Connecticut on Saturday. Cincinnati is scheduled to go on the road to meet 18th-ranked Memphis on Saturday.
Sanders connected on back-to-back 3-pointers to help Cincinnati take a 32-30 halftime lead. He had plenty of time to shoot both shots.
“I was surprised that I was that wide open,” he said. “My confidence is very high. I know I can shoot, so I’m going to keep shooting.”
Kennedy scored six of the last eight points of a 16-3 SMU run that left the Mustangs leading, 22-14, with 6:34 left in the first half. The Bearcats countered with a 12-0 run capped by four straight points by Jackson. The Bearcats never trailed after Jackson converted a three-point play for a 24-22 lead with 3:24 left before halftime.
Jackson went to the bench with his third foul with 14:21 left in the second half, but he returned to deliver an impressive dunk and a bounce pass through two defenders to Kilpatrick for a backdoor layup that gave the Bearcats a 48-39 lead with 10:47 left in the game. Cincinnati led by as many as 11 points in the last minute.
“That’s something we’ve come to expect from him,” Kilpatrick said about Jackson’s energetic effort. “It’s in his DNA. We don’t have to tell him to play with energy.”
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