Xavier, Cincinnati get past brawl, into NCAA 16

Posted March 20, 2012, at 7:43 p.m.

CINCINNATI — Punches flew. Blood dripped on the court. Two proud basketball programs saw their reputations stained in mere seconds last December, when Cincinnati and Xavier players lost their cool at the end of their game.

The moment would follow them everywhere for the next three months. The video was played countless times. The questions kept coming.

Finally, that’s changing. By reaching the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament together, the crosstown rivals have finally gotten beyond the brawl.

“It’s a good thing both teams are doing well now,” Xavier point guard Tu Holloway said on Tuesday.

Far better than anyone expected three months ago, when four players from each team were suspended for the melee at the end of Xavier’s 23-point win on its home court on Dec. 10. It became a national talking point and a turning point for both teams.

Both teams have gotten past the fallout and made it deep into tournament time. Cincinnati (26-10) plays Ohio State (29-7) in Boston on Thursday in a regional semifinal. Xavier (23-12) plays Baylor (29-7) in Atlanta on Friday.

The only time they think about the fight now is when it invariably comes up during interviews before NCAA tournament games. They don’t mind the question as much as the implication in some of them.

“After a win, they try to make it out as if we didn’t have that fight, we wouldn’t be where we are now, that the reason we’re playing so good is because of that,” Cincinnati power forward Yancy Gates said on Tuesday. “Where really, the reason we’re playing good is just that we’re playing good now, we figured it out. I think that’s what makes it so annoying.”

Fair or not, the fight became the lens through which the rest of their seasons would be viewed.

Xavier was 8-0 and ranked No. 8 when Holloway, guard Mark Lyons and forward Dez Wells were among those suspended, costing the Musketeers their top three scorers and knocking everything out of sorts. They lost five of their next six games and had a tough time regaining their confidence and chemistry.

Plus, they seemed to be affected by the national attention, losing the toughness that Holloway and Lyons had bragged about after the Cincinnati game.

For the first time in six years, the Musketeers failed to win at least a share of the Atlantic 10 regular-season title. When they got to the A-10 tournament, they knew they had to win some games to keep playing.

Xavier reached the A-10 final in Atlantic City, then knocked off Notre Dame and Lehigh in the NCAA tournament to reach the round of 16 for the fourth time in five years.

They’re back in a familiar place, with their confidence restored.

“We played so free in Atlantic City because we knew we had so much against us,” Holloway said. “We knew if we lost our opening game, we’d be in the NIT. We play free with our backs against the wall. We just started clicking.”

By contrast, Cincinnati felt backed against a wall after the Dec. 10 loss, which left the Bearcats 8-3 and depleted on the front line. Gates and center Cheikh Mbodj received six-game suspensions, forcing coach Mick Cronin to turn to a four-guard offense.

Also, he stressed that the Bearcats had to become much tougher on defense. And, they had no margin for error left if they wanted to have a successful season.

“If we didn’t do it, we were dead in the water,” Cronin said on Tuesday. “We were in must-win games since Dec. 14 at Wright State.”

They won that one, starting a streak of 10 victories in their next 11 games. They reached the final of the Big East tournament, then beat Texas and Florida State in the NCAA tournament to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 2001.

The fight is viewed more as something the two teams have overcome instead of something that dragged them down.

“I think so,” Gates said. “I think other people think so now. They’re starting to see the type of guys we have. Now I think it’s just something that’s in the past.”

Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski thinks that both teams showed a lot of resolve in getting past the fight and getting to the round of 16.

“You can’t allow adversity to throw you off your track,” Bobinski said in a phone interview. “I’m proud of our guys, proud of their guys. I think it says a lot about both programs and both places. They haven’t allowed that to be a defining or derailing moment.”

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