Sean Kilpatrick had 17 points as the Cincinnati Bearcats withstood a Houston rally in the second half to pull out a 61-60 win over the Cougars Tuesday night for their seventh straight win.
Jermaine Sanders added 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and Titus Rubles chipped in seven points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Bearcats (14-2, 3-0 American), which shot 37 percent from the field and 53 percent from the free throw line.
The last time the Bearcats started conference play 3-0, they were a member of Conference USA.
"Any time we can go on the road in conference play and get a win, it is a good win," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
Brandon Morris led Houston (10-6, 2-1) with 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting from behind the arc. Jherrod Stiggers had 11 off the bench, and TaShawn Thomas added 10 points and nine rebounds for Houston, which saw its three-game winning streak snapped.
"The second half we realized we could handle the pressure, and we could play with these guys," Thomas said. "The first half we lost some thought. We were kind of scared because we knew they were a big offensive rebounding team that went to the glass hard. The second half we came in and told each other we could play.
Houston hit 7 of 10 from behind the arc in the second half, shooting 47 percent for the game, but hit 9 of 18 from the free throw line, including 3 of 9 in the second half.
Kilpatrick hit one of two free throws to up Cincinnati's lead to 59-54 with 51 seconds left. Stiggers was fouled shooting a 3-pointer with 33 seconds remaining, but hit just one of three free throws.
Justin Jackson missed both free throws for Cincinnati, and Thomas grabbed the rebound and his basket cut the lead to 59-57 with 12 seconds remaining.
Kevin Johnson hit two free throws with 11 seconds to go to push the lead back to four.
"When it came off, it was more flat, but the touch was there," Johnson said of the second free throw that hit the front of the rim before falling in. "When I seen it hit the back iron, I kind of had a feeling that it would sneak in for me."
After the Cougars had cut Cincinnati's lead to three with just under 10 minutes remaining, the Bearcats held Houston scoreless for the next 8:02, using an 8-0 run to push its lead to 58-47 on a Tony Caupain layup with 3:19 left.
"I thought we got some good looks," Houston coach James Dickey said. "We couldn't get closer because we couldn't make free throws. Especially in conference, every possession is magnified. You never know what possession will decide the game, so you have to play hard every possession."
Cronin said the Cougars made some adjustments in the second half.
"They saw what we were doing, trying to take Thomas out of it, they found the open man and made 3-point shots," Cronin said. "We switched to the zone and the zone really saved us."
Danrad Knowles ended the drought with a tip-in with 1:54 remaining, starting a 7-0 run, capped by a Stiggers 3-pointer with 53 seconds left to cut Houston's deficit to four.
Cincinnati opened the second half with the first three points to push its lead up to 19 points, but Houston responded with a 9-0 run to cut the lead to 43-33 on a Knowles jumper with 15:38 left in the game, prompting a Bearcats timeout.
After Cincinnati pushed the lead to 48-36 on a Sanders' 3-pointer with 12 minutes remaining, Houston answered again, this time with an 11-2 run to close within three on consecutive 3-pointers by Morris with 9:56 remaining.
Utilizing a full-court press, Cincinnati used an 11-2 run over a five-minute stretch of the first half to open up a 26-13 lead with 7:24 left in the first half on two Titus Robles free throws. Houston responded, closed the lead to 26-20, but the Bearcats ended the half on a 14-4 run to open up a 40-24 halftime advantage.