A Shootout To RememberPosted by jstevrtc on December 14th, 2009
This fall I’ve had the pleasure to travel around a little and attend several college basketball games as a media member, but as I walked by the loading docks and into the back of the Cintas Center on Sunday night, I felt it as soon as I got inside. I’ve attended Xavier basketball games on a media credential in the past, but this time, the buzz, the sounds, the aura…
This was different.
I had expected a different experience, because this was my first Crosstown Shootout. But this was beyond expectation. I made a quick detour through the media room and, without being asked, one of the very helpful Xavier Sports Info workers showed me to my seat. I was positioned just around the corner from the Cincinnati bench, a short bounce pass away from UC head coach Mick Cronin, himself. If you’re familiar with the Cintas Center setup, you’ve probably already realized — I was right in front of the Xavier student section.
Total. Freaking. Mayhem.
Now, that period-after-every-word emphasis thing you see above is an overused tool by everyone ranging from amateur tweeters (myself included) to professional sportswriters (myself not included), and it’s losing a little luster. I use it here because…well, if I had to use it once in my life to get a point across, this is when I would choose to use it. As I said, I’ve been to a number of games in this part of the country this season. The only way I can think to describe this particular student section on this night is…”beautifully ridiculous.” I turned around, saw their painted faces and myriad noise-producing implements, heard the unbelievable roar that flowed from them, and I honestly thought I’d see Mel Gibson as William Wallace riding around in front of them on a horse. They were both exhilarating and horrifying. And I mean that in the best way possible. I didn’t grow up in Cincinnati, I didn’t go to either one of these schools, and I brought no allegiance with me for either program to this game. I was there as an observer. But they numbered in the hundreds and sounded like thousands. They were already putting in a legendary performance — and the game hadn’t even tipped off.
Just before the game began, I noticed a contingent of around five rows just behind the Cincinnati bench. They were modestly clad in red and black, a little staid compared with the rest of the crowd. There were a hundred or so of them. Obviously, these were the Cincinnati supporters, and to be quite honest, after the first sighting I didn’t notice them again until about the ten-minute mark of the game. I don’t blame them for a millisecond. If I were seated adjacent to the XU student section while wearing the opposing team’s colors, I’d be fairly sedate, too.
Then the game started. It was physical early, to say the least. Xavier’s Dante Jackson and Terrell Holloway ventured into the lane only to find guys like Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates (an imposing 6’9 and 260, let me tell you) and Steve Toyloy (6’8, 255, and no less imposing) waiting to make sure they regretted that decision. It wasn’t dirty play, just good physical basketball. Four different trips into the lane by the Xavier players resulted in two hard fouls and two clean blocks, and at least two bodies wound up on the ground each time. Cincinnati was sending a message. The crowd reaction escalated each time.
Then it got nasty.
At one point in the middle of the first half, Jackson attempted another sortie into the paint and met the forearms of Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright. After Jackson was helped up by his teammates, chests came together with opposing chests and noses got in faces. It initially calmed, but right as order was being restored, XU’s Jordan Crawford and UC’s Rashad Bishop exchanged shoves and were subsequently corralled by teammates. They both got slapped with technical fouls — and you knew it was on. It was as if both teams were saying, “We’re probably going to scrap. Let’s just do it.” You knew something was coming.
UC rising star Lance Stephenson hit a jumper and, on his way down the floor, chirped at Xavier head coach Chris Mack. XU’s Mark Lyons let the UC bench know about it after he hit a layup. It was building.
Moments later, as Stephenson made a move toward the basket, Xavier’s Jason Love — who looks bigger than 6’9 and 255, if that’s possible — throttled him with an undoubtedly intentional foul, a body check that would have made Marty McSorley proud. There was no nose-to-nose this time. As the two teams headed to their benches for a TV timeout, they crossed paths at midcourt and that was all that was needed. It was almost a complete brawl, a true street-fight. Thankfully no punches were thrown, but you could tell it was close to that point, with all the shoves and, shall we say, “harsh” words between the two sides. You could feel that the lid was about to come off of this boiling kettle and that a free-for-all was about to erupt that could only be broken up by the arena’s security guards. Everyone was in the center circle, ready to sqaure off; and I’m talking about every coach, player, and manager from both sides.
The photographers rose in front of me and I stood to see exactly what was happening. What I then saw was one of the great moves of the year so far. After a few seconds of all this, the Xavier coaches had managed to push their throng back toward the bench, and the referees were divided and doing whatever they could to separate the sides. At that moment, out in the middle of it all, a thick, imposing bald man from the Cincinnati bench, well-suited and shod, came out and – in a single deft motion, mind you — body-blocked 6’11, 230-pound junior center Ibrahima Thomas and knocked 6’3, 210-pound Jaquon Parker to the ground, keeping them both out of the mix. Chaos soon gave way to order. I asked one of the media gentlemen next to me who the bald guy in the suit was who made that brilliant play. He identified the man as the UC strength coach, Dave Andrews. If the Detroit Lions haven’t called this guy, then they’re out of excuses.
And it has to be said at this point — after the sides were separated, the crowd was at a level that would have made a lathered-up Jerry Springer audience look like finger-snapping hipsters at a jazz poetry reading. In their only transgression of the night, the Xavier student section hurled a few criminal accusations at select UC players. We’re talking accusations for which Roy Williams would have presumably had these fans drawn and quartered. But that was short-lived.
Then, halftime. In the media room, I asked the same fellow from press row what, besides their proximity, flames the dislike between these two schools? He responded: “Well, the Xavier kids think the UC kids are thugs and hoodlums, which, for the most part they’re not. And the Cincinnati kids think the XU kids are snobby and elitist rich kids, which, for the most part, they’re not. That’s pretty much it.”
I made my way back to courtside, took my seat, and after about two minutes of play of the second half I noticed something. A fantastic basketball game had broken out since the fracas in the first half. I looked down at my stat sheet and saw that at that point (and even deep into the second half), neither team had yet reached double-digits in turnovers (they would end with 24 total, even after two overtimes). I watched Jason Love’s rebounding total get up to 14, 15, 16…and he had only scored two points on the night. He’d finish with 7/19/5 blks, the 19 boards representing a tied career high. I saw Lance Stephenson become the very embodiment of “moving without the ball,” as he darted through XU defenses in attempts to get open, specifically trying to shake Holloway and making Holloway regret his having drawn this assignment (more on this in a bit). Watching Stephenson move without the ball and watching defenses try to keep tabs on him is like watching one of those dogfight scenes involving about eight fighter jets in the movie Top Gun.
Then, of course, I saw Holloway take his team on his back and lead by example. His jumper at the end of regulation might have missed (I had the perfect vantage point for the Dante Jackson follow, seeing the lights around the backboard light up just before the shot left his hand), but he would have his way in the end. On the way to a 26-point night that annihilated his previous career high of 16, Holloway made plays that kept his team in it. Down three with less than 20 seconds left in the first OT, he somehow managed an old-fashioned three-point play that tied it. Throughout that first overtime he sacrificed himself and drove into the lane time and time again, knowing he’d face contact, trying to get to the foul line. He succeeded, and he came through at the line, hitting a perfect 11-11 on the night.
The grand point here is that, after the aforementioned nonsense from the first half, both teams realized that there was something more at stake than a possible fist fight. They realized that the best revenge would come by playing good basketball and winning this game. They realized why they were there. And they put on a show.
When Xavier got up five in the second overtime and there were only about two seconds remaining, it was obvious how this one was going to turn out. Xavier players were hugging — hell, complete strangers in the stands were hugging — the crowd noise rose to a level indicating happiness, relief, and the satisfaction of defeating a talented but hated rival…and I became aware of a growing threat behind me. A small cadre of security guards had come to stand in front of the Xavier student section, probably in hopes of keeping them from rushing the court (as proud as that would have made us at this site, heh heh) when the clock hit all-zeroes. I wondered where my insurance policy was kept and if my family would find it. I even noted this in the live blog, though I didn’t really think the XU students would trample me. But then again, this IS the Crosstown Shootout…
Alas, there would be no court rush, the students staying put in the stands as Jason Love pulled down his 19th rebound and the buzzer sounded. That didn’t surprise me as much as what happened moments later. Out of appreciation for their efforts, the Xavier players — first a few at a time, and then as a team — went into the XU student section themselves, in effect “rushing the student section.” It was my first time seeing a court rush…in reverse.
I packed my gear and headed back to the media room for post-game comments by the coaches and players. I looked around and saw some of the best in terms of college basketball writers; we’re talking Rick Bozich, Pat Forde, Mike DeCourcy, and even a flash-through by analyst/color commentator (and expert tweeter) Fran Fraschilla. Probably others I just didn’t see or run into. The presence of those names alone tells you you’re at a big-time event. I’ve never been the type of guy who gets star-struck, but because these guys are required reading if you’re a college basketball fan, it was cool to see them there.
The Xavier players came out first, specifically Holloway, Crawford, Jackson, and Love. You could see a restraint there, as if they were very happy about this win but didn’t want to show it too much. Jason Love remarked that, as a senior, he was “proud of these guys,” specifically of the “toughness and togetherness” his team showed. Jordan Crawford had a great response to a question about some of the early physical play. “They tried to come in here and be the bullies, but we wanted to be bullies, too. We weren’t going to back down from anybody.” Jackson added that the theme of the halftime talk from Chris Mack, though, “…was composure. We weren’t going to get bullied, but in the end we knew we had to keep our composure.”
Chris Mack took the mic next, saying before any prompting, “A Shootout to remember,” which I’m stealing. As fine a summary as that was, he later described something that happened in the XU huddle at the beginning of the second half that, aside from Miami (OH)’s Charlie Coles in the post-game presser after his close loss to Kentucky, is the best thing I’ve heard in an interview room this year:
When asked about the decision to put Holloway (6’0, from Hempstead NY) on Stephenson (6’5, from Brooklyn), Mack explained, “Terrell came to the huddle and said, ‘I got him.’ I said, ‘You got who?’ And he said, ‘I got Lance. I’m from New York.’” Mack’s response? “I said, ‘OK, I’m from Cincinnati. Guard him.’ So, you know, he wanted him.” He ended by adding, “There’s something about New York City that makes these kids compete like that when the stakes get as high as they were tonight.” (Note: ESPN’s Pat Forde also chronicles this excellent exchange in his own marvelous summary of the game.)
UC coach Mick Cronin, obviously despondent, offered his diagnosis, saying “We missed too many lay-ups and too many free throws. And when you’re up two, you can’t give up a lay-up. You have to make a team make a shot to beat you.” He included himself in the blame most often, though, adding, “There are a lot of play calls I wish I had back.” Indeed, after a game of such physicality with a near-brawl in the middle of the court, a game that also had an almost unnoticed coaching chess match embedded within it, the determining factor (as it so often is) was really one of the fundamentals of the game that you learn at an early age — free throws. Cincinnati shot 22 and only made 10 of them (45.5%); Xavier shot a whopping 36 of them, making 28 (77.8%). That’s an 18-point differential in free throws alone.
As victor, though, Chris Mack gets the final word: “That was one of the best Crosstown Shootouts I’ve ever been a part of. There’s something magical about this game.”
Two Cincinnati guys coaching the teams of two Cincinnati schools, two teams that are already pretty darn good and getting better, and two teams with rising stars that are going to be fun to watch as the season progresses…
Yeah, Mack chose the right word. It was magical.
And so far, without question, it was the game of the year.