We’ve officially reached the point where the feats of the current incarnation of the Monmouth basketball are no longer surprising.
Because with Saturday’s stunning 61-59 road victory over Cincinnati at Fifth Third Arena, the Hawks have shown they’re capable of playing with anyone right now.
And with that come realistic dreams of winning a MAAC championship and returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Monmouth (5-1) got 18 points from guard Marcus McClary, 14 points from guard Shavar Reynolds and 13 points from center Walker Miller, as the trio of fifth-year seniors helped produce the program’s biggest win since the Justin Robinson era.
“We never thought we couldn’t win this game,” said Miller, whose older brother, Wes, is in his first year as Cincinnati's head coach. "We knew it was a great challenge and how good they are. But we are not going to be afraid of anyone. We’re going to come out and play hard and we think we can hang in there with almost anyone.”
Monmouth’s five straight non-conference wins is the most since winning six straight during the 2016-17 season, part of a two-year run during which the Hawks went 55-15, with six high-major wins and a pair of NIT appearances.
It ranks as the best start since going 7-1 in 1990-91, which included a program-record seven straight non-conference wins.
“I don’t want to say surprised because these kids have just kept together,' Monmouth head coach King Rice said. "I just stay out of the huddle sometimes and let them figure it out.
"I’m super excited for them. I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. I think our potential is unlimited.”
The result was the latest indication of just how competitive it will be at the top of the MAAC this winter. Iona, the heavy favorite, knocked off No. 12 Alabama Thursday.
“It’s a huge win for us," McClary said. "We knew we could come in here and get it done if we stayed together."
The Hawks took the lead for good on a McClary 3-pointer with 7:23 to play, with McClary sinking another just over a minute later.
Cincinnati, which beat No. 14 Illinois last week before losing in the final minutes to No. 12 Arkansas, pulled to within two points with a minute to play on a basket by David DeJulius, but Hayden Koval missed a pair of free throws with 4.1 seconds left.
The Bearcats took their biggest lead of the game at 40-28 with 18:39 to play. From that point on, Monmouth outscored them 33-19. It was very similar to the run Monmouth put together to beat Princeton last Wednesday after falling behind by 14 points late in the first half.
McClary hit a 3-point to give Monmouth a 58-53 lead with 6:21 left, capping a 19-6 run.
Monmouth held a 38-36 edge in rebounds, with forward Nikkei Rutty leading the way with eight rebounds.
The Hawks return to the court next Friday at Niagara, before facing Canicius next Sunday in the first two MAAC games of the season. The Hawks then return to non-conference play when they travel to take on St. John's on Dec. 9.
Can red-hot Monmouth basketball pull off stunner at Cincinnati?: 3 keys for Hawks Saturday
Now things get interesting.
Monmouth is off to its best start since 1990, improving to 4-1 with Wednesday's 76-64 win over Princeton. The Hawks now have a series of opportunities to stamp themselves as both a challenger for Iona in the MAAC and one of the more impressive mid-majors in the country early in the season.
With just a late basket at Charlotte in the season-opener standing between Monmouth and a perfect record, a big-time road test awaits at Cincinnati this afternoon (2 p.m.; ESPN+/MonmouthHawks.com) at Fifth Third Arena.
There are a host of storylines associated with this one, beginning with Monmouth looking to secure what would be a fifth straight win, with the last three by double-digits. It would be the program’s most impressive win since the Justin Robinson era, which included five victories over high-major programs during the 2015-16 season.
The Bearcats are coming off their first loss of the season, falling to No. 12 Arkansas, 73-67, at the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, after leading in the final two minutes.
It was just two days that Iona made clear just how difficult it would be to unseat them by beating No. 10 Alabama.
There’s Monmouth center Walker Miller competing against his brother, first-year Cincinnati head coach Wes Miller.
And then there's the flu outbreak that left the Hawks shorthanded against Princeton.
It now appears that everyone will be available to play against the Bearcats, including starting forward Nikkei Rutty, who sat out against Princeton, and Shavar Reynolds, who came off the bench to score 16 points. Point guard Myles Ruth, the first guard off the bench, is also expected to play, after sitting out with eye.
The only player who is not expected to be in uniform is redshirt sophomore forward Jarvin Vaughan, who has not played this season due to injury.
1. Defensive focus
Monmouth turned the game around against Princeton when it ramped up the defensive intensity, picking up full court and trapping the ball. It took the Tigers out of their half-court offense while allowing the Hawks to force turnover and up the tempo.
The Hawks made a number of key plays thanks to defensive pressure, not the least of which was a Samuel Chaput steal that led to a Marcus McClary slam dunk to put Monmouth up 10 points with 3:37 to play.
That’s the kind of commitment Monmouth will need for 40 minutes against Cincinnati. They key to pulling that off could be having a full compliment of healthy guards, including Ruth.
2. Backcourt leadership
Monmouth’s trio of starting guards is playing like a high-major backcourt right now, with George Papas (19.9 points), Reynolds (16.3 ppg.) and McClary (11.8 ppg.) the key to the team’s early-season success.
What bodes particularly well for the Hawks entering a brutal stretch of games is that the group, all fifth-year seniors, does not get rattled regardless of the situation. That was clear against a Princeton team with a pair of wins over Power 5 programs this season, closing the game with a 46-20 run over the final 21 minutes after going down 14 points late in the first half.
That will be important at Cincinnati, with the Bearcats 4-0 at home this season.
3. Protect the paint
Monmouth has outrebounded each of its first five opponents, having redoubled its efforts to improve in that area this season. The key has been the arrival of 6-11 Miller, a graduate transfer from North Carolina. Miller is averaging a team-high 8.2 rebounds, to go with 15.2 points.
The return of the 6-8 Rutty, who had 10 rebounds against Saint Joseph’s in his last start, would help. In his absence, 6-7 sophomore forward Myles Foster grabbed six rebounds and scored nine points in his first career start.
Cincinnati’s 6-11 center Abdul Ado was a four-year starter at Mississippi State and an All-SEC defensive performer. Forward Ody Oguama, a 6-11 junior transfer from Wake Forest, had 10 rebounds against Arkansas.
Check back right here later Saturday afternoon for complete coverage of Monmouth's big game at Cincinnati.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Monmouth NJ basketball stuns Cincinnati, 61-59; 5th straight win for Hawks