"Number one, I would first tell you that I'm really disappointed in the way that both teams conducted themselves down the stretch," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. "It's disappointing. We're all competitors, we all played our hearts out, this game means so much… there's a lot of pressure on both teams to win, and for it to play itself out the way it did at the end… I don't know another word other than disappointing."
"We got beat by a better team today, I think that's pretty clear," Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said after the game. "What happened (at the end) I'm like you guys, I need to see the film. If my players don't act the right way, they'll never play another game at Cincinnati."
The game started out as a typical shootout game with lots of missed shots and ugly basketball. By the first media timeout at 15:57, the two teams had only combined for four points as Xavier made just one field goal on six shots and Cincinnati was 0-for-5 with a pair of Dion Dixon free-throws accounting for their only points.
The two teams would battle back and forth over the next several minutes.
Cincinnati took a 9-5 lead on a Yancy Gates dunk and jumper on consecutive possessions. But by the next media timeout, Xavier had taken the lead back 11-9 on a Brad Redford jumper on the assist from Tu Holloway.
The game remained close through the five minute mark. Gates buried another jumper to break a 19-19, but a 3-pointer from Mark Lyons put Xavier back ahead. That theme would continue, as Lyons came up with multiple big shots throughout the game, refusing to let Cincinnati ever get on a run.
"Whenever we did get a few stops, I give Mark Lyons a lot of credit, when we did bottle them up a little bit off the pick 'n roll all of a sudden he hit a big shot," Cronin said. "He hit three threes that really hurt us, so you've got to give him a lot of credit with that."
At the five minute mark, a Tu Holloway 3-pointer gave Xavier a 25-23 lead and sparked a 12-0 run that would continue until Cincinnati forward Cheikh Mbodj made a jumper with 55 seconds left to end a 5:36 drought without a field goal.
Xavier would take a 34-25 lead into the locker rooms. The biggest keys for Xavier in the first half were converting Cincinnati turnovers into points and scoring in transition. Xavier won the points off turnover battle 8-0 and beat Cincinnati 8-2 in fast break points.
Lyons led the Musketeers with 14 first half points, including two 3-pointers. He also dished out three assists. For Cincinnati, Gates led the way with 10 points, but most of his baskets came away from the basket.
Out of halftime Xavier got back to back buckets on a Dez Wells tip in and a Tu Holloway and one to extend the lead to 14 at 39-25. Xavier had their biggest lead at 16 after a Kenny Frease tip in with 17:53 left, but another dunk by Gates, a jumper from Dion Dixon and a jumper from Gates gave Cincinnati a 6-0 run and brought them back within 10.
That's as close as they'd get though.
Lyons buried another big three to push it back to 13, and Cincinnati would never get closer than 12 again.
Xavier's defensive intensity on the perimeter, combined with Cincinnati's anemic offense allowed Xavier to turn the rivalry game into a route. The Bearcats shot just 27.9 percent, their lowest mark of the season.
"Xavier's defense on the perimeter is really good," Cronin said. "They've got some quick guys, aggressive guys out there on the perimeter and he's rotating fresh guys. They're an impressive team in that regard."
Xavier also won the battle inside. Though Gates scored 18 and had 12 rebounds, he was the only productive frontcourt member for the Bearcats and he made 7-of-15 shots. Frease scored 13 points and had 13 boards for Xavier, while making it a point to establish better position in the post on offense.
"I give (Kenny) a lot of credit for trying to catch the ball closer to the basket," Mack said. "Part of Kenny's struggles have been that he's caught it eight to 10 feet from the basket and now he's in a position of weakness and a position of passing the ball after two or three dribbles toward the basket. We really wanted to teach him to carve out space, even more than we've been. We've had Aaron Williams with us able to help him with that."
Freshman Dez Wells also stepped up with 14 points and six rebounds on a 7-of-10 shooting performance in his first shootout.
Another player appearing in his first Shootout, Andre Walker, didn't score much for Xavier with just two points, but he had nine rebounds, including four offensive boards.
A Frease jumper and a Holloway layup extended Xavier's lead to 23 points, before the scuffle occurred. On Cincinnati's final possession, Holloway and Cincinnati freshman guard Ge'Lawn Guyn got into a verbal dispute that escalated when Guyn pushed Holloway's face with his hand. The result was both benches clearing and Frease being tended to at mid-court with a bloodied eye. Suspensions for both teams will likely be coming down in the next few days.
"I think the way we played… it was probably our best game of the year," Mack said. "I thought we were better on offense, we attacked more. We were a team that was faster from defense to offense. I think our defense has been pretty consistent all year. I thought we took a big step forward with our play today. It was good to see."
Lyons led Xavier with 19, while Holloway pitched in with 17. Cincinnati was led by Gates with 18 and Dixon with 14.
Xavier takes on Oral Roberts next Sunday on December 18. Tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.