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Mike Lopresti | | February 19, 2015

Return to campus

  Xavier hit two free throws with 11 seconds left to beat rival Cincinnati.

CINCINNATI, Ohio -- What drama. What passion. What a college basketball rivalry between next-door neighbors.

No, not that one. Duke and North Carolina might be famous for trying to coexist only eight miles apart, but that’s an ocean compared to Cincinnati and Xavier. Six turns and 3.2 miles are all it takes to get from one arena to the other, door to door.

They were at it again Wednesday night, with another dandy. No, not that one in Durham. Another Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout, Xavier winning 59-57 in a game of many angles, with old Bearcat Oscar Robertson sitting at midcourt. As Musketeers coach Chris Mack mentioned, "I think both teams obviously knew what was on the line, because they can’t go anywhere without seeing it."

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No right hooks or left jabs were thrown, which is more than you can say about the last time they played this game in a campus arena. That was 2011, and perhaps you remember the nationally-replayed rumble in the last minutes of a Xavier victory. Both programs endured black eyes -- figuratively, and perhaps literally -- so the past two years they met in a neutral, calmer downtown location.

Now they’re back on campus, giving peace a chance. To promote civic tranquility, the presidents of Cincinnati and Xavier posed for pictures together before the game. Santa J. Ono and Father Michael Graham looked very chummy as they smiled for a gaggle of cameras. Though at the same moment, the Bearcat student body was booing and hollering sweet nothings into the ears of the Xavier players as they left the floor after warmups.

"We walked out there to warm up 1.5 hours before the game," Xavier freshman Trevon Bluiett said. "The entire student body was already here."

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Cincinnati assistant Larry Davis has a challenge.

The 17-9 Bearcats are trying to avoid the NCAA tournament bubble, but a three-game losing streak is not the recommended method. First, a 16-point whipping at Temple, then losing on a Tulane 30-footer at the buzzer, and now this. Davis has to help them regroup, while filling in on the bench the rest of the season for head coach Mick Cronin, who is still recovering from an artery issue in his brain.

"They need to think about the mistakes that put them in the position to lose," Davis said. "They’ve got to be smart basketball players and analyze that. And they can’t let the emotional letdown hurt them the next game."

Cronin still comes to the office, studies film and directs the strategy and the program, but he has to stay away from games, to avoid stress and any blood pressure spikes. Instead, he watches on television at home.

Wednesday, he watched Cincinnati shoot 61 percent the second half, commit nine fewer turnovers, outscore Xavier in the paint 42-16 -- and still lose, when Gary Clark fouled Bluiett 20 feet out on the floor with 11 seconds left.

  Cincy and Xavier are seperated by 3.2 miles.
"Freshman foul," Clark said. "A bonehead play."

Avoid stress? By the end, let’s hope Cronin had changed the channel to American Idol.

Meanwhile, his team needs a quick reboot. "It’s do or die," guard Troy Caupain said. "Our backs are on the ropes right now."

Davis’ cell phone went off twice during his post-game press conference. Mick on the line, maybe?

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This was tonic for Xavier, a 17-10 team trying to slip into the NCAA field. Mack is hoping to get his players’ minds off March scenario projections and just concentrate on the next opponent. Good luck with that, in the social media blabbermouth age.

"It’s impossible to block that out in 2015," he said.

The Musketeers’ RPI has improved into the 30s, but they can afford no hangovers, starting with Butler Saturday. Going eyeball-to-eyeball with Cincinnati is always a drain. They are 3-6 in the first game after the last nine Shootouts.

"We’ve handled adversity a lot better than we’ve handled success," Mack  said of this season. "It’s going to be interesting to see our response."

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Most of the active participants Wednesday came from places such as Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina. They were not raised to know about a Cincinnati civil war. But they learn.

Take Bluiett. He is the top freshman scorer in the Big East and from Indiana, but clearly he was a tad overheated. His first shot was an airball, his first pass in transition sailed into the second row, and he didn’t have a point in the first 39 minutes and 49 seconds. "The game," he said, "kind of sped me up."

But with 11 seconds left and his team down 57-56, he made two free throws, and was just relieved to do something to help. "This gives us bragging rights for a whole year," he said.

"I’ve seen freshmen struggle in this game over and over and over," Mack said. "But for him to go to the line and make two free throws when we are down one shows a toughness in Trevon.

"It takes guts to do that."

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The seniors feel this moment the most. Xavier’s Dee Davis had been shooting 18 percent in Big East 3-pointers, and every Bearcat knew it. But by the end, he had gone 5-for-5, and the Cincinnati players were ready to use their scouting reports for confetti.

"First time in a long time," Davis said of his hot hand. "And it came at the right time."

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The two teams now go their separate ways, back to their own leagues to find paths into March. Duke and Carolina might have bluer blood and a higher profile, but no purer intensity.

"It’s an unbelievable feeling," Dee Davis said of the Crosstown Shootout. "Especially if you win."

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