CINCINNATI -- Four strands of white nylon net drooped from the rim, waiting to be snipped in the final act of a championship celebration.
Giddy Cincinnati Bearcats waved to Bob Huggins, who was courtside doing a radio interview after their Conference USA tournament championship. It wouldn't be right to claim this keepsake without him.
They saved the scissors for the gruff coach who, like his team, has done extraordinary things in a season that started with a loss and culminated in a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Those were tears welling in Huggins' eyes.
''It was emotional,'' said guard Steve Logan, the two-time conference player of the year. ''There are so many things you can say about coach Huggins.''
The two most common descriptions involve his titles and his temper. The volatile coach rages at players and referees with foot-stomping fury, willing his team to play harder than the opponent.
He figured to wear out his voice and his heels this season, when it was left to Logan and a bunch of role players to carry on the tradition of dominating the conference.
With fans expecting the worst, Huggins has put together his best team.
Fifth-ranked Cincinnati (30-3) won its seventh league title, tore through the conference tournament, set a school record for victories and earned the school's first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The overachieving team that fans have dubbed ''Huggins' Heroes'' will play Boston University (22-9) in the first round at Pittsburgh on Friday.
''Everything these guys get, they certainly deserve, because they've worked so hard,'' Huggins said. ''Logan gets so much recognition -- deservedly so -- and they chime in with it, too. Sometimes you get a little bit of jealousy; there's none of that, absolutely none.''
The players say a big factor has been Huggins' ability to change in his 13th season at Cincinnati.
The coach who loves to press and trap decided to stick with a plain man-to-man defense all season because it fit his players. Without hesitation, he had them play primarily zone -- something he's never done as a coach -- in the conference tournament because he realized it would give them an advantage.
''I don't like zone because I don't know who to blame,'' Huggins said. ''Man-to-man, I've got a real good idea of who to blame when things don't go well.''
There's also been a behind-the-scenes change that's made a big difference with his players. Although Huggins still rages on the sideline, he has worked on building relationships with players.
''When I first got here, he was one way: hard and tough on the players,'' said Logan, a senior. ''He's calmed down on that. I think that's helped our club. He knows how to talk to guys when they're down. It's dealing with guys as a team and as individuals.''
He has even cried with them.
Huggins got weepy before and after the Bearcats' final regular-season game -- stunned players had never seen him cry before -- and the tears appeared again after the conference title game.
That's a measure of his deep pride in a team of overachievers. It also might reflect what's going on inside Huggins as he approaches an unsettled offseason.
Since 1995, the school has paid $130,000 a year into a deferred annuity designed to keep Huggins in Cincinnati. His contract allows him to collect it after this season.
He would like to coach in the NBA someday. West Virginia, his alma mater, is in the market for a head coach.
Fans are keenly aware that Huggins will be tempted to leave. When he snipped down the net last Saturday, the crowd chanted, ''Bob Don't Go! Bob Don't Go!''
For now, Huggins is fixated on a prize that has eluded him. Cincinnati made the Final Four in 1992, Huggins' third season, and hasn't been back.
With star-packed rosters, the Bearcats lost their second-round games in four consecutive tournaments from 1997-2000. They finally broke out of the rut by advancing to the round of 16 last year.
In 1997, they lost to Iowa State by a point. In 1998, West Virginia beat them on a banked 3-pointer at the buzzer. Kenyon Martin broke his leg right before the 2000 tournament.
Huggins thinks this time might be different.
''We haven't been lucky,'' Huggins said. ''They say that all balances out, so we ought to be in for a hell of a roll.''
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.