CINCINNATI -- Up by 27 points early in the second half, Cincinnati figured it had this one put away. The 20th-ranked Bearcats got a surprise, and a reminder.
Dion Dixon scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half, shooting over Jacksonville State's undersized zone defense, and Cincinnati weathered a sluggish second half for a 73-59 victory Tuesday night.
Cincinnati (2-0) opened with a 26-9 run behind Dixon's 3-point shooting. The Bearcats led by 27 early in the second half, then eased up and let Jacksonville State (1-2) take the momentum and stick around.
"Once they saw we were going to win, that's enough for them," coach Mick Cronin said. "And I don't want that to be the case."
Cronin left Dixon on the floor for the full 40 minutes, while center Yancy Gates played 35 and point guard Cashmere Wright 33. Unhappy with their effort, Cronin left his key players in the game to teach them a lesson.
"I was unhappy with some guys' intensity," Cronin said. "The last thing I was going to do was call time out and take them out of the game. I was going to let them play through it."
The first-half cushion was enough for the win. Dixon finished 4 of 8 behind the arc, where the Bearcats went 8 of 12 overall. Wright had 23 points.
Neither guard was very happy with another statistic -- five turnovers apiece. Cincinnati had 20 overall.
"I think we did horrible, personally," Wright said. "We've got to figure out what's wrong and correct it before the next game because we can't keep playing like that and continue to win."
Jacksonville State (1-2) got 16 points apiece from Brian Williams and Mason Leggett. The Gamecocks have only one player as tall as 6-foot-7 and had to pack in a zone defense to keep up. Dixon's early 3-point shooting ruined that strategy.
"We really thought we needed to surround Gates and not let him be an anchor in the paint," coach James Green said. "And I thought we did a pretty good job of that. They made so many shots on the perimeter that it made us get out of our game plan."
Gates, who had a double-double in the opener, finished with eight points on 3-of-10 shooting with nine rebounds.
The Bearcats were coming off a 65-40 win over Alabama State on Sunday night that highlighted their defense. They gave up only 14 points in the first half, and the 40 overall were the third-fewest allowed in Cronin's six seasons.
They were much more lax against Jacksonville State. After pulling ahead 48-21 early in the second half, they allowed the Gamecocks to go on a 15-1 run. The Bearcats went 6 minutes, 8 seconds without scoring, a drought ended by Gates' dunk.
Stephen Hall's 3-pointer cut it to 67-57 with 1:50 left, the closest the Gamecocks could get.
Cincinnati was ranked in the preseason poll for the first time since 2003. The Bearcats reached the NCAA tournament in March for the first time since 2005 and are expecting to get back there again with their deepest team under Cronin.
They're still learning how to deal with success. Cronin remained calm on the sideline while watching his team struggle in the second half.
"I've been trying to save some of my intensity," he said. "It's a long year. There comes a point where you have to let guys grow up a little bit. They've got to take ownership in what they're doing."
Jacksonville State is coming off a 5-25 season that led to big changes. The Gamecocks returned only four players, including lone senior Hall. The roster includes seven transfers and four freshmen.
Their biggest challenge was up front. Jacksonville State has only four players as tall as 6-foot-6 and had to play zone defense to give itself a chance. Dixon's outside shooting helped the Bearcats take control right away. He hit three 3s in the opening 26-9 spurt, while the Gamecocks were only 4 of 16 from the field with five turnovers during that stretch.
Dixon hit four 3s in the first half, all from the right wing, all of them with plenty of room to shoot.
"I came in a little early and got some shots," said Dixon, who missed two of his three shots from behind the arc in the opener. "That helped me make some shots early. I was missing shots; I was kind of disappointed in myself. I wanted to make sure that didn't happen again."
Gates ended the half with a shot that pleased the crowd of 4,542, hitting a 3 from the right wing at the buzzer for the Bearcats' biggest lead to that point.