Monday, December 14, 2009

A Crosstown Classic

I realize not everyone has ESPNU ( and it's a shame that's what channel it was on) but you missed one of the great games of the college year if you missed Sunday's Xavier/UC showdown. I would've posted this sooner if not for the double-OT game last night or an economics final tonight (after which I told my professor I'd donate $1,000,000 to charity if I ever used economics in my life again) but I took notes at Cintas last night and want to re-live some of the experience.

Walking into the arena 5 minutes before tip, it was obvious that the atmosphere was electric and Xavier's recent losing streak was moved to the back of every fan;s mind. UC won the opening tip and began the scoring with Cashmere Wright's free throw at the 19:03 mark. Then in the ensuing three minutes, Xavier's Dante Jackson drained two 3-point field goals, Jordan Crawford dropped in a deuce, and Mark Lyons swiped the ball from Deonta Vaughn and charged up the court for a lay-in to give Xavier a quick six point lead at the under 16 timeout.

The Bearcats fought back with a 14-0 run that included two threes from Darnell Wilks and a pair of baskets by Yancy Gates. Gates didn't start this game but started out (and finished) incredibly well, I was worried about stopping him all night. Suddenly, the Muskies momentum had shifted in favor of the Bearcats as UC led 19-12.

This is right about the point when tempers flared between the two teams as the pushing and shoving escalated, players left the benches to join in the shoving match, and select players from the two teams needed to be restrained. I'll admit to thoroughly enjoying the scuffle as Xavier had come out really flat the past few contests and was finally showing signs
of life.

After the melee settled down and double technical fouls were assessed to Crawford and Rashad Bishop, Terrell Holloway and Xavier responded on the court in a big way. Holloway, who was scoreless up until that point, scored six quick points as the first half wound down to lead a 10-2 Xavier streak. That put the X-Men back on top 24-21. Unlike last Tuesday at Kansas St., we showed the ability to bounce back from a deficit instead of continuously digging ourselves a hole that's impossible to get out of.

After that little Xavier spurt, Cincinnati tied the game at 26 with a few minutes left in the first half. Holloway responded again for the Musketeers though and finished off the half by converting two free throws as well as draining a three with 0:55 seconds to play to push X ahead 31-26 going into the second half.

At the half I kept thinking about what Chris Mack could possibly be saying to his team. Mack was a part of 9 Crosstown Shootouts himself, both as a player and assistant coach, so there was no need to tell him what this meant to the players or, for that matter, everyone in the building. Mack was fired up the entire first half and was hopefully passing on some controlled energy to everyone around him, it felt like it was going to be a long night.

Early on in the second, Xavier extended its lead to seven points, 35-28, and looked poised to put the Bearcats in a tailspin. Xavier and UC traded baskets over the next few minutes and the Muskies kept UC at bay for the time being. Cincinnati did climb to within four points, 39-35, on a Gates' dunk, but then X reeled off six straight points to jump out to its largest lead at 45-35.

Trying to climb back into the game, the Bearcats administered fullcourt pressure with around 13 and half minutes to play. UC was really able to disrupt Xavier's rhythm and execution as it charged back into the game and started to noticeably turn the crowd. This switch kept on as the Cats spouted off a 20-6 run that actually put them ahead at 55-51 with 5:38 to play. This was the first time I felt like we were going to lose, all early season signs on this team pointed to it.

X proved me wrong though and came back quickly to tie the game at 55 with 4:07 left. The teams then traded buckets and the let the lead shift back and forth over the next few minutes.
With 0:32 second left to play in regulation, Holloway came up big again and hit a jumper to move X in front at 61-59. UC then called a timeout in which they setup a play for Lance Stephenson, their freshman phenom who had been "chatting" with the Xavier bench all game and wasn't looking to stop at this point. Stephenson, who finished the game with a career-high 22 points, drove the ball to the hoop to lay in a game-tying basket (seriously the easiest clutch basket I've ever seen, this kid is HUGE).

Xavier had one more possession to try and win it during regulation, but a Holloway jumper was errant and Dante Jackson's follow was a half-second too late (thought it was good initially) as the buzzer sounded with the score knotted at 61.

As overtime started this game had the feel of a special one: stars playing great on both sides and back and forth play the whole time down the stretch. Things began looking bleak for the Musketeers early on in overtime as they gave up the first few buckets to UC and were in an early hole. The Muskies bounced back at the free throw line a little but still found themselves in a 72-67 hole with 58 seconds remaining. Holloway again put the team on his back though by getting fouled and drilling four free throws to pull the team within one, 72-71, with 27 ticks left. UC's Dion Dixon then converted both foul shots of his own at the other end to give UC a three point advantage.

Needing a lot to happen with little time remaining, things were looking bleak for X as the shooting had not been very stellar all night. Again though, Terrell Holloway came through with his biggest play of the game. The sophomore guard drove the ball hard past a Bearcat defender on the right side to record an old-fashioned 3-point play, the foul was legitimate even though Mick Cronin tried to jump high enough that anyone not under 5'4" would notice his outrage. That tied the game at 74 and sent the contest into a second overtime for the first time in Shootout history.

Charting into new territory in the rivalry, the arena was louder than it had been the entire game at the start of the second OT. Nobody in Cintas seemed distracted by other things like Brian Kelly going to ND (which was noted by the XU student section numerous times during the game) or that the game was reaching 3 hours in length, it was all about the basketball and every single fan desperately wanted their team to pull it out.

Xavier again found itself trailing early in double overtime as UC was consistently scoring inside now and it was getting harder for X to stop as the fouls started piling up. The Muskies bounced back again though and tied the game at 79 on a Jason Love layup with 2:12 remaining. Love had been coming up huge all evening on the glass and was scoring every time we needed him to, true signs of a leader.

Then, with 0:40 seconds left in the second OT, Xavier regained the lead on two Jason Live free throws and would be in control if they could get one defensive stop. Even though I thought that was almost impossible on this night, we force UC into a bad, off balance jumper that ends in an X defensive rebound with 20 seconds left. The Bearcats fouled and Xavier had a chance to almost seal the victory with some clutch free throw shooting. Dante Jackson stepped to the stripe and calmly knocked down 2, essentially guaranteeing the W for Xavier. A few UC three point jumpers missed and the final horn finally sounded, announcing an 83-79 victory for the Muskies. The entire arena erupted, the players in white especially, and the party was on. Another year, another hard fought win over UC.

The victory really felt like a turning point as the Muskies improved to 6-3 and should carry some confidence into the rest of their tough stretch before conference play. Love carried the team on the glass as he tied a career-high with 19 rebounds, also adding seven points in 41 minutes of action to round out his final Crosstown Shootout as a Musketeer. The player of the game though was the floor general, PG Terrell Holloway
. Holloway finished with 26 points and a highlight reel of assists that got a lot of easy buckets for his teammates and kept the offense flowing. He also took on fellow NYC product Lance Stephenson defensively and did his best to disrupt his timing and made it hard for him to put it on the floor most of the night. I'm hoping this is a sign of things to come with Holloway as our lack of a leader at the point has cost us some losses already and would help the rest of the offense if someone could solidify that role.

Now with a solid victory under their belts, the Muskies still have numerous chances left to gain more notable wins for their run to conference play and the postseason. The next significant matchup occurs this Saturday at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University where X will take on the Bulldogs at 2 PM. The game will be on ESPN with the great Bobby Knight (both as an analyst and a coach) calling the action so there's no reason to miss it. The run starts now, GO X.

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