Coach Bob Huggins vowed to take Cincinnati to the Final Four when he was hired in 1989 to rejuvenate the Bearcats’ once-proud basketball program.
It took Huggins only three years to make good on his promise.
Cincinnati earned a trip to the Final Four by defeating Memphis State for the fourth time this season, 88-57, in the Mideast Regional final Sunday before 14,850 at Kemper Arena.
“I’m really kind of numb,” Huggins said. “I don’t know what to say.”
The 12th-ranked Bearcats (29-4) will face Michigan (24-8), which outlasted Ohio State, 75-71, in overtime in the Southeast Regional final, in a semifinal game Saturday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
It will be the first Final Four appearance in 29 years for Cincinnati, which made five consecutive trips to the Final Four from 1959-63, winning back-to-back NCAA championships in 1961-62.
“I hope (Cincinnati) wins it all,” Memphis State Coach Larry Finch said. “I think they’re a good enough defensive team to do it. They’re a hard-nosed group of young men and those are the type of teams that win championships. They play very similar to Indiana.”
Cincinnati, which had defeated Great Midwest Conference rival Memphis State by an average of 10.3 points in three previous games this season, shot 59.6% and outrebounded Memphis State by 36-29 in handing the Tigers their worst loss since Louisville beat them by 30 points in 1981.
“It’s been a good year for us,” Finch said. “I hated to end it on the note it did, but you’ve got to hand it to Cincinnati, they beat us four times this season.”
Cincinnati forward/guard Herb Jones, voted the Midwest Region’s most outstanding player, scored 23 points and had 13 rebounds and point guard Nick Van Exel added 22 points. Van Exel made eight of 11 shots, including four of five three-point shots.
The Bearcats are 18-1 since Van Exel was put into the starting lineup after a nine-point loss at DePaul in January.
“If you play (Van Exel) for the jump shot, he goes around you, and if you lay off him, he shoots the jumper,” said Memphis State guard Ernest Smith, who covered Van Exel. “And Herb Jones did a good job, especially on the boards.”
Guard Anthony Buford added 15 points and center Corie Blount, a transfer from Rancho Santiago College, added 13 points as Cincinnati extended its winning streak to 10 games.
“The beauty about our team is that you can’t really key on one guy or somebody else is going to hurt you,” Huggins said. “This is a different type of team. We don’t have egos and guys who worry about statistics. We’ve just got guys who want to win. They’ve played like that all year long. That’s why they’ve been successful.”
After watching Indiana rout UCLA by 27 points in the West Regional championship game Saturday, Finch thought what happened to the Bruins could never happen to Memphis State (23-11).
“I saw a game like this yesterday and I said to myself, ‘That won’t happen to us,’ ” Finch said. “But it did. They shot the ball well. Everything they shot went in. It was unbelievable.”
Memphis State, which hadn’t shot better than 43% in three previous games against Cincinnati, shot 35.7%, including 29% during the second half. The Tigers made only 22.7% of their three-point shots.
Memphis State forward Anfernee Hardaway, who had made 13 of 39 shots in the first three games against Cincinnati, sank four of nine shots and had 12 points before fouling out. Guard Billy Smith, who had 11 points, missed 12 of 17 shots.
“We missed some easy shots,” Hardaway said. “I just can’t understand it. It happened every time we played them this year.”
Trailing by 24-23, Cincinnati took command by outscoring Memphis State, 23-12, in the final 9:22 of the first half to take a 46-36 halftime lead.
Van Exel, who had 11 points during the first half, started the run by scoring seven consecutive points, making two jumpers and a three-point shot.
“I wasn’t trying to take over,” Van Exel said. “My shots were there and I was just trying to capitalize on their missed shots.”
Van Axel and Buford sensed that the Bearcats were on their way to the Final Four as they held four fingers aloft when they ran off the court at the end of the first half.
Memphis State outscored Cincinnati by 8-4 in the first four minutes of the second half to cut the deficit to eight points, as Hardaway and Smith made back-to-back three-point shots.
But the Bearcats, who shot 60% during the second half, went on a 24-7 run. Van Exel had eight points during the burst, making two three-point shots, and Jones and Buford each had five points.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to go to the Final Four,” Buford said. “This team worked hard all year to put it together, and now we’re going to Minneapolis.”