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CINCINNATI – South Florida had the lead heading into the closing minutes.
And just like the last time they played Cincinnati, the Bulls let it slip away again.
An ailing Sean Kilpatrick scored 10 of his 18 points in the closing minutes, leading the 13th-ranked Bearcats to a 50-45 victory on Sunday that had an all-too-familiar feel for the Bulls.
The Bulls (11-11, 2-7 American Athletic) let one slip away on Jan. 18, when Cincinnati broke open a tie game for a 61-54 win in Florida. This one followed a similar path, with the Bulls up by a point with 6 minutes left.
Chris Perry had 13 points and Victor Rudd scored 11 for the Bulls, who have lost their past 11 games in Cincinnati.
"I still feel like we could have beaten them twice, at home and here," Rudd said. "I feel like we let it slip away in the last three minutes of the game, and they played great in both games."
South Florida missed six of its last seven shots — five of them from behind the arc — and had three turnovers down the stretch. The Bulls are last in the AAC in 3-point shooting, making only 26.2 percent, so they played into Cincinnati's hands by firing away during the final minutes.
"We went brain-dead," coach Stan Heath said. "We took (the 3s), we probably shouldn't have. A couple of those, the clock was winding down and so we just got stuck with that shot."
South Florida was coming off a 78-71 win over SMU that snapped a four-game losing streak. The Bulls haven't beaten a ranked team since Feb. 29, 2012, at Louisville.
"I know we could beat this team, I know that definitely," Perry said. "We kind of messed up on the very end, but we'll work on it."
The Bearcats (21-2, 10-0) got their 14th straight victory by following Kilpatrick's lead.
"He's going to come and perform every night, sick or not sick," said forward Justin Jackson, who added 15 points. "It's what I expected out of him."
The senior guard made six free throws and two driving lay-ins, scoring 10 of Cincinnati's final 12 points. Cincinnati survived the close call at home, where it has won 17 in a row, including 15 this season.
Kilpatrick was sick the past two days, missing practice on Saturday. He still wasn't feeling very well on Sunday.
"It's tough," said Kilpatrick, who averages 19.5 points per game. "Playing under the weather is terrible."
Kilpatrick finished 5 of 16 from the field and only 2 of 8 beyond the arc. He moved ahead of Danny Fortson and Deonta Vaughn into third place on Cincinnati's career scoring list with 1,891 points. Oscar Robertson scored 2,973, and Steve Logan is second at 1,985.
The Bearcats were coming off a defining 69-66 win at No. 12 Louisville on Thursday night that left them in control of the AAC. Jackson returned from a sprained left ankle and helped the Bearcats pull it out at the end.
The forward was Cincinnati's best option at the start on Sunday, hitting three close-up baskets during an opening 11-2 run. The Bulls were flustered, missing their first three shots and turning it over twice. They called a timeout, went back on the court and couldn't get the ball past midcourt, turning it over on a 10-second call.
Rudd got South Florida going, hitting a driving layup and a 3-pointer that gave the Bulls a 14-13 lead. Both teams missed open shots during a ragged opening half, with Cincinnati ahead 24-18 at the break. It was the fewest points South Florida had scored in an opening half.
The Bulls intensified their defense at the start of the second half and pulled ahead. Martino Brock's three-point play and Perry's layup gave South Florida a 27-26 lead. The Bearcats missed four of their five shots in the half and turned it over six times, helping the Bulls to pull ahead.
Kilpatrick missed eight of his first 10 shots. His 3-pointer started an 8-2 spurt that put the Bearcats back ahead.
Not for long. Perry drove for a basket and hit a jumper that gave the Bulls their biggest lead, 39-36, with 7:18 to go. Perry raised his arms toward the student section and motioned for some cheering as he ran down the court. At that point, the Bulls were shooting 50 percent in the second half.
Kilpatrick took it from there.
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