Though Xavier (12-2) managed to pull it out in the end, 73-71, the 45 minutes of back-and-forth, up-and-down action gave basketball fans throughout the tri-state, but also nationally, a treat that they will savor for some time to come.
"What a war," said second-year Musketeer head coach Sean Miller, who stayed true to the series form by losing his debut into the intercity rivalry game (with tonight's loss by Cincinnati/Andy Kennedy, first-year head coaches have lost their last six introductions to the Shootout). "What an amazing game from start to finish. It was just a terrific game of college basketball. Though it might not lucky pretty on the score sheet, and did not look all that pretty on the floor at times, you have to hand it to both teams for how hard they played."
Unfortunately, for one of the parties involved that hard work will show up as little more (at least until Tournament time) then an "L" in the standings (at least until March). Sadly for the Bearcat faithful the unlucky loser of tonight's instant classic was Cincinnati (13-5), who has now lost three straight for the first time since 2002-2003 when the ‘Cats lost the final three contests of their 17-12 season. Xavier, on the other hand, is riding high on a now seven-game winning streak.
After Justin Doellman missed on the front-end of a two-shoot free throw opportunity, James White traveled about 79 feet of the court to get a shot at the free-throw line, drawing contact, but throwing up an off-balanced/off-line shot that failed to draw a whistle from the official.
Though Kennedy himself questioned the official about the lack of call as time expired, a call that would have given his team a chance to tie the game and send it into a second overtime, he admitted afterward that he would not have made the call.
"I would not have made the call...but then again I wouldn't have made the call on that hand check twenty-seven feet away from the basket either," said Kennedy, referring to the fifth foul on Jihad Muhammad. Muhammad, who hit the game-tying three pointer at the end of regulation that sent the game into overtime in the first place, that disqualified him from the contest and allowed Xavier's Stanley Burrell to put his team ahead by one, 72-71.
"I would love to make a comment on the officiating but I can't. I liked how they were calling the game physically early on, but you hate to have a call like that take the game out of your player's hands."
Kennedy's ‘Cats, at least from a cynical perspective, were short changed when it came to getting whistled blown in their favor. Cincinnati, a team that has lived and died with their hard-nosed interior play in recent years, was not "rewarded" with a trip to the charity stripe until the 8:51-mark of the second half. UC, who has been able to make more free throws then their opponents have been able to get to the line during a recent stretch of games, was held to just 11 free-throw attempts on the game (5-of-11).
"It is difficult to play hard and thinking about driving to the paint when you know you are going to get in there and not get anything for it," said James White, who scored 16 points (11 in the first half) in his final chance to participate in the perennial UC/XU clash. "I think we started to settle for jumpers. After not getting any calls you just sort of figure, ‘what is the point?'"
Xavier, on the other hand, had the ability to make a living at the line if they so wanted to, getting to the line 28 times on the night. If it was not for a 10-of-24 night from behind the three-point arc by the ‘Cats (and a 1-for-18 night for the usually smooth stroking X-Men) this could have been along night for UC.
While one is not quick to pull the "conspiracy theory" card, in fact, it is probably ridiculous to do so, there was definitely a reason that Xavier was able to get inside and get the officials attention far more frequently than were the Bearcats. The coaches believe that the hostile environment consisting of the "Cintas Crazies" was one that could have swayed the minds of the officials at times.
"I think that playing here in such an electric environment definitely served as a home court advantage," said Andy Kennedy. While not specifically relating to the officials, a hostile crowd can most certainly have an affect on a very human officiating crew. Noting the environment and the advantageous position the Cintas Center played in his team's performance, Sean Miller was quick to acknowledge the role his fans, specially the students, played in creating an XU-friendly scenario.
"[It was a] terrific atmosphere," said Miller. "Our students were amazing. In every college building it starts with the students. As they go so does the crowd. My hat goes off them."
While members of the student section tried to throw every verbal slur, slander and alcohol induced remark their 1300-on-the SATs mind could muster up, including one that actually involved the kitchen sink and somebody's mother, UC players were not quick to let the atmosphere affect how they performed.
One of those that would be expected to most notably "shaken" by the magnitude of the game and the hostility of the crowd would be freshman point guard Devan Downey. However, the speedy dynamo from South Carolina does not think the crowd had any direct correlation with how the team performed.
"I knew a little about the Xavier/Cincinnati game when I got here, but when I got here I learned a lot more about it. I think I might have been a little shaky, but I just came out and played."
Downey did not simply come out and play. Downey came out and led his team – almost to a victory. The 5-8 point guard led the Bearcats in scoring, connecting on 8-of-18 shots from the floor, including a career-best 4-of-6 from behind the arc) en route to a team-high 22 points, the second highest total of his young career (24 points vs. Ohio 12/14).
"To be honest, I have played in tiny little high school gyms that were more hostile than this. It was loud, but I've played in front of loud crowds before."
While reminded to be careful as to where I watch high school basketball game in South Carolina, Downey's comments suggest that this mere freshman is far more than your typical first-year player. Including hitting several key three pointers during the course of the game, and hitting a pair of huge free throws late in the second half, Downey was called upon to take the potential go-ahead shot with seven seconds remaining on the clock.
"When you live with it, some times you are going to have to die with it," said Kennedy about his point guard's decision to take a 17-jumper as time was winding down.
"We would have loved to call a play to get close to the basket but we just didn't feel like we would have been rewarded for it. He had worked off that screen all game and it worked for us. He got in the lane and pulled up because he did not want to get into too deep and get swallowed up by all those big guys."
Even though Downey missed the shot, the fact that he was willing, able, and asked to take the shot suggests that the 18-year-old seems poised and ready to shoulder much of the load for his team during the stretch run of this season – or at least he had better be.
While Coach Kennedy might not need his point guard to carry the team on his not-so-broad shoulder, he does need him to step up and play a major role for this team over the remainder of the season.
"I don't know if he has got to carry this team by himself, but he has got to come out and play every game for us. We are at the point where we need him to step it up every time he steps on the floor."
The Bearcats must quickly forget about this difficult loss and move on. Cincinnati's schedule will not stop and wait for them to mourn over tonight's outcome. As Kennedy reiterated in the post-game press conference, Cincinnati will go into practice tomorrow and get ready for a difficult Rutgers team on Sunday. Thankfully for the ‘Cats, this was not a conference loss, which could have put a serious damper in their post-season aspirations. However, as the ‘Cats stand now, this team still has a shot at the NCAA Tournament, at least Coach Miller thinks so.
"They're headed to the NCAA Tournament," said Miller about Cincinnati. "They've got some great seniors and an exciting point guard."
While Cincinnati's dreams of playing beyond the first few rounds of the Big East Tourney are still alive and well, they must start worrying about their lock on being "Cincinnati's team". With the loss tonight the Musketeers managed to move one-step closer to catching UC in the all-time lead, 46-27, came into the game. While the historical advantage goes to the Red and Black, the Musketeers have made a recent surge, winning seven of the last 10 match ups between the two schools.