PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — From the opening whistle, J.J. Moore was determined not to go home a loser on senior day at Rutgers.
The transfer from Pitt nearly got his wish with 19 points, four rebounds and two steals in a 70-66 loss to No. 15 Cincinnati on Saturday.
“Just being a senior, knowing that this is my last game on this court, I just want to go out there and give it my all for the fans,” Moore said. “I was only here for a year, so I just wanted to go out there and do what I came to do in the first place.”
What kept Moore from winning was Cincinnati senior Sean Kilpatrick. After a slow start, he scored 24 points to lead the Bearcats (26-5, 15-3) to a share of the American Athletic Conference regular-season title.
“It’s an honor,” Kilpatrick said. “I’ve waited four years and to wait and really say, ‘You know what? I helped this school win a conference championship.’ And now that coach (Mick Cronin) is actually smiling a little bit, that’s something that’s a little monkey off our back now.”
Kilpatrick converted a three-point play and drove the lane for a layup in the final 68 seconds as the Bearcats rallied from a late deficit against the Scarlet Knights (11-20, 5-13), who finished the season with 13 losses in 17 games.
“The process has been successful so far, doesn’t matter what the record is,” Rutgers first-year coach Eddie Jordan said. “We learned how to compete with integrity; we learned how to compete with composure. We’re coming together as a team.”
Justin Jackson had given Cincinnati a 65-64 lead with 1:46 to play, scoring underneath after Kadeem Jack blocked his original shot in the paint.
Kilpatrick pushed the lead to four points with his back-door layup and free throw. The senior closed out the scoring with 17 seconds to play after Kerwin Okoro scored on a goaltending call against Jackson.
Jackson finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds despite second-half foul trouble. The Bearcats did not have another player in double figures, but they limited Rutgers to two points in the final 3:16.
Myles Mack had 10 points and nine assists and Jack added 15 and 12 rebounds for the Scarlet Knights, who rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to threaten Cincinnati’s chances for its first share of a league title since winning Conference USA in 2003-04.
Rutgers will be the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament this week.
Trailing 63-58 after Kilpatrick’s 3-pointer rolled in with 6:12 to go, Rutgers held Cincinnati scoreless for more than four minutes and took a 64-63 lead on a jumper by Mack with 3:18 remaining.
Both teams missed shots and free throws — Jackson missed two with 2:54 left — over the next four possessions before Jackson scored underneath to put Cincinnati ahead for good.
Cincinnati was up eight points with less than 13 minutes to play when Rutgers started to make its home finale exciting.
Jack followed a miss by Moore, igniting a 9-0 run that gave the Scarlet Knights their first lead since midway through the first half. Okoro hit a high-arcing 3-pointer, and Moore scored on a layup and then hit two free throws for a 55-54 lead with 9:06 to go.
Neither team led by more than five points the rest of the way.