CINCINNATI --Cincinnati's seniors hugged before the game and relayed a quick, quiet message.
"We all whispered in each other's ears: `It's time to go,'" Sean Kilpatrick said.
Kilpatrick scored a season-high 34 points in his final home game, and Cincinnati's trio of senior starters led the way to a 97-84 victory over No. 20 Memphis on Thursday night that left the American Athletic Conference race tied.
Afterward, Kilpatrick went from one end of the court to the other, stood on the sideline tables and saluted the students, thinking about how he would never get to do it again.
"Just the fact that I won't be able to play in front of them again, something I spent five years basically ..." he said, before stopping to wipe a tear from his eye with his red jersey.
There's still more to do with one game left in the regular season.
The Bearcats (25-5, 14-3 AAC) remained tied atop the first-year league with No. 11 Louisville. The Cardinals won 84-71 at No. 18 Southern Methodist on Wednesday night and finish at home against No. 19 Connecticut. The Bearcats close the regular season at Rutgers.
Cincinnati and Louisville split their season series, each winning on the other's home court. The Bearcats haven't won a league title since they were in Conference USA.
"That's something we've been striving for the past couple of years," Kilpatrick said. "It's an accomplishment. Being able to have that in our possession and go out and grab a win is something we really need to do."
The Tigers (22-8, 11-6) fell apart in the opening minutes and never got even or pulled ahead. Cincinnati's seniors kept the Bearcats ahead the whole game.
Kilpatrick led the way in his final home game at the school where he will end up as the No. 2 all-time scorer behind Oscar Robertson. Forward Titus Rubles had a career-high 24 points, and forward Justin Jackson added 13 points and nine rebounds despite injuring a shoulder in the second half.
"We had that planned since the beginning of the week started," Jackson said. "We set the tone, everyone was going to follow. That's what happened."
The Bearcats piled up a season-high in points for an AAC game. It was the second-most points Memphis had allowed all season.
"It seemed like all their players were shooting well today," said Memphis forward Austin Nichols, who had 17 points. "I know Rubles won't do that most of the time. Kilpatrick can do it, but it was just Rubles' night tonight. He was hitting just about everything he was throwing up there."
The Bearcats' three seniors combined for 71 points and didn't have a turnover.
"Seventy-one points and no turnovers? It's impossible," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "Their will was tremendous tonight."
Rubles' showing was the most unexpected. His previous career high was 14 points. He has reached double figures only six times this season.
"I wanted to put on a show for my mom," Rubles said. "It was her first time coming to a game. I was just playing with supreme confidence and it worked out good."
Joe Jackson scored 21 points for Memphis, which turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, cut a 14-point deficit to one early in the second half and got overpowered down the stretch.
Kilpatrick and Jackson used their shirts to wipe tears from their eyes as they were honored at midcourt for senior night before the game. They helped the Bearcats pull away early.
Cincinnati's biggest downfall in the last two losses -- 33 turnovers. The Bearcats worked on making good decisions under pressure during practice the last few days, and were spot-on when the game began.
The Bearcats didn't turn the ball over during an opening 18-4 run. Jackson had eight points and four rebounds in the spurt, which was set up by the Bearcats' tight defense. Memphis had eight turnovers and went 2 of 7 from the field in the first 8 minutes.
Kilpatrick hit a 3-pointer, but Michael Dixon Jr. matched it with 4 seconds left, cutting Cincinnati's halftime lead to 38-32.
Jackson had a driving layup, and Chris Crawford hit another 3 that cut it to 38-37. Cincinnati then lost Jackson, who was fouled while driving to the basket, doubled over in pain and left the court with his right arm tucked under him. He said the shoulder popped out of place. Jackson returned a few minutes later with a trainer rubbing the back of his shoulder and arm.
That's when Cincinnati's three senior starters took over. Kilpatrick, Jackson and Rubles combined for 12 points during a 15-3 run that rebuilt the lead to 58-45. The lead eventually reached 18 points before Cincinnati closed it out.