RIO GRANDE, Ohio — Cincinnati Christian University built a 15-point halftime lead and withstood a furious second half comeback by the University of Rio Grande to hold on for an 87-80 win over the RedStorm, Saturday night, in the men’s bracket championship game of the Bevo Francis Invitational Tournament at the Newt Oliver Arena.
The Eagles, who opened the seson with consecutive wins before dropping a pair of games prior to the tourney, improved to 4-2 with the victory.
Rio Grande suffered its first loss in five outings, dating back to the final two games of the 2012-13 season.
“We had too many breakdowns, particularly in the first half,” French said.
We weren’t accountable on the defensive end and they shredded us. They shot 69 percent in the first half and just kicked us. That’s where we lost the game.”
CCU did, in fact, shoot 69 percent from the field (20-for-29) in the first half to open up a 51-36 halftime cushion.
Rio Grande led throughout the game’s first four minutes, but a three-pointer by the Eagles’ Michael Hill forged an 8-8 tie with 15:52 left in the first half and another jumper by Hill just under a minute later gave CCU a lead it would never relinquish.
But that’s not to say that the RedStorm went away quietly. In fact, they were anything but quiet.
Rio opened the second half on a 14-4 to slice the deficit to five and continued to chip away until drawing within two, 73-71, following a bucket by sophomore forward Phillip Hertz (Rungsted Kyst, Denmark) with 3:27.
However, that’s as close as the RedStorm would get.
Cincinnati Christian responded with six straight points to push the lead back to eight, 79-71, with 1:03 left and led by no less than five the rest of the way, hitting 10 of their 14 free throw tries over the final 63 seconds to ice the win.
“I’m proud of how we fought back, especially given that we were short-handed, but we never should’ve put ourselves in that position. It should’ve been a one- or two-possession game all night long,” French said. “They played extremely well and we broke down defensively early on, but we gave ourselves a chance. We just couldn’t finish it.”
Hill poured in a game-high 30 points to lead the Eagles in a winning effort, while Kenny Gaynor and Nick Seibert added 14 points each. D.J. McCommons finished with 11 points and seven assists, while Mitch McLeish had a game-high 12 rebounds.
Hertz led Rio Grande with 21 points - all in the second half - while junior guard Evan Legg (Piketon, OH) and senior guard Ricky Tisdale (Bolivar, TN) netted 13 points each and junior guard Travis Elliott (Ironton, OH) finished with 12 points.
Cincinnati Christian finished with a .574 shooting percentage for the game (31-for-54), while the RedStorm shot 37.8 percent (28-for-74) and were outrebounded 42-35.
Gaynor and Hill were all-tournament picks for CCU, while Hertz and Legg earned the honor for Rio.
Rio Grande returns to action on Thursday night when it hosts Cumberland University in its Mid-South Conference opener. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m.