Commentary

Crosstown Shootout shows off spice

Originally Published: December 13, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

CINCINNATI -- After the benches cleared once and brawls were prevented twice and the star Cincinnati freshman barked in the face of the Xavier head coach, America got a good glimpse of how spicy the Crosstown Shootout rivalry can be.

And that was just in the game's first 35 minutes.

Then regulation went down to the wire.

And the first overtime did, too.

And then one more overtime, just for thrills, before they finally settled this feud.

By the time Xavier had rallied repeatedly to subdue Cincinnati 83-79, nerve endings were shot all over the Cintas Center -- and all over town. For Musketeers fans, it was time to revel in a third straight victory over Cincinnati -- this time with UC ranked. For Bearcats backers, it ended a catastrophic week -- first hero football coach Brian Kelly jilts his 12-0 team for Notre Dame, now this.

(The Xavier student section made sure to remind Cincy of their gridiron misfortune, chanting Kelly's name at the Bearcats' bench.)

The two universities are nearby but have little in common -- one a small, Catholic/Jesuit school, the other a sprawling, urban school. Sharing the same city limits but little else creates natural tension, and a natural basketball rivalry.

It's been shoved off center stage this season by football. The sensational seasons by the Bengals and Bearcats have hogged the headlines, and playing on Sunday night meant being overshadowed by the NFL.

None of that mattered a bit to the combatants. This is what a great rivalry is supposed to look like -- a euphoric explosion for the winners, visible disgust for the losers, animosity lingering in the charged air.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Holloway
AP Photo/David KohlXavier's Terrell Holloway scored a game-high 26 points on Sunday.

But that's nothing new. There were only two technical fouls Sunday night, compared to six when the teams met last season, and there have been 10 over the past three encounters.

"The intensity of this game, the environment, it's unique," said Xavier rookie head coach Chris Mack, a former Musketeers player and assistant and a Cincinnati native. "I was on Tobacco Road for a while [at Wake Forest] … I don't care if it's Carolina-Duke or Wake-North Carolina State, there's something magical about this game."

There was plenty of magic Sunday night. And plenty of malice.

There was Xavier senior center Jason Love ripping down 19 rebounds and blocking five shots -- then surprisingly scoring the Musketeers' final five points to put away the game.

"This was one of the most intense games I've played in," Love said. "This is my fourth year playing in it, and I couldn't think of a better way to go out."

There was Xavier guard Terrell Holloway obliterating his career high of 16 points, going for 26. The Hempstead, N.Y., product scored the last seven Xavier points of the first overtime to erase a five-point deficit, and made all 11 of his free throws. (Part of a key dynamic of this game: Xavier shot 78 percent from the line, Cincinnati 46 percent.)

And it was Holloway, a diminutive bundle of competitiveness, who announced to Mack that he would guard fellow New Yorker Lance Stephenson early in the second half. Mack said the conversation went this way:

Holloway: "I got him."

Mack: "You got who?"

Holloway: "I got Lance. I'm from New York."

Mack: "OK, I'm from Cincinnati. Guard him."

Holloway did, giving away at least five inches and plenty of pounds to the physical specimen Stephenson. Holloway at least made Stephenson work extra hard for his 22 points on 19 shots.

"This was one of the most intense games I've played in. This is my fourth year playing in it, and I couldn't think of a better way to go out."

-- Xavier's Jason Love

Stephenson's mouth worked extra hard, too. At one point in the second half, after swatting the ball away from Xavier's Jordan Crawford and out of bounds in front of the Muskies' bench, Stephenson appeared to yap directly at Mack.

The rookie head coach raised both palms and looked at official John Cahill as if to say, "Did you see that, and are you going to let him get away with it?" Cahill stepped in to admonish Stephenson but didn't whistle the superstar recruit for a technical.

Asked for his appraisal of Stephenson, Mack tersely said, "Um, he's a very good player."

Was he talking to you during the game?

"Yeah, he was," Mack said, then shrugged. "That's fine."

Stephenson, for his part, unconvincingly denied talking to Mack. But there was no denying the first-half aggression, which created two chaotic situations.

First, Xavier's Dante Jackson was taken to the ground on a hard foul by Cincy's Cashmere Wright. As players came together, Crawford and UC's Rashad Bishop had words and had to be separated -- a couple of times. They were each hit with T's.

A few minutes later, Love buried Stephenson with an intentional foul on a drive to the basket. That sparked a TV timeout, and as the teams were supposed to be going to their benches, a near-melee erupted at midcourt. Everyone was on the floor -- players, coaches, managers. Cincinnati strength and conditioning coach Dave Andrews might have made the best move by a Bearcat all night when he slammed one of his players to the court to prevent him from rushing the Musketeers.

Funny thing: Cincy has bigger muscles, a Big East physical pedigree, a tradition of meanness and the tough-guy black jerseys. But from the first flare-up until halftime, Xavier outscored the Bearcats 19-7.

"They tried to come here and be the bullies," Crawford said. "We wanted to be the bullies, too. We're not going to back down from anybody. That put them on their heels a little bit."

[+] EnlargeCincy
AP Photo/David KohlCoach Dave Andrews held back some Bearcats from further penalties.

And after Stephenson had his second-half episode with Mack, the Bearcats lost a four-point lead in the final 5½ minutes of regulation.

"True toughness is dealing with the environment and walking away," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "We lost our head.

"We were winning when it all started. My guys lost their cool. We were concerned with everything except execution."

Give Holloway credit for executing in overtime. With his team down five in the final minute, he made every play.

He hit four free throws. Then, with Xavier trailing by three and less than 25 seconds left, he drove on Jaquon Parker for a basket and the foul with 19 seconds left.

It was, to say the least, an unwise move by Parker to foul him. For proof, you simply had to read the lips of Cincinnati's Dion Dixon, who walked away from the play with his hands on his head and yelled into the deafening noise, "Oh my f------ God!"

Holloway of course sank the free throw to force a second OT. Xavier promptly fell behind there again, but closed the game with a 7-0 run for a victory that sent players to all corners of the court in wild celebration.

It was Xavier's first win of the season against a team from a big-six conference, after previous losses to Marquette, Baylor and Kansas State. And it continued the Atlantic-10's recent uprising against the Big East, coming after Charlotte ransacked Louisville on Dec. 5 and Temple upset Villanova on Sunday.

But whatever this victory meant in terms of conference prestige or RPI or anything else, that was secondary. What truly mattered to Xavier was beating Cincinnati, and owning one of the nation's great rivalries for another year.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

ALSO SEE