UC’s second half Blitzkrieg Overwhelms Xavier in Buzzworthy Crosstown “Classic”

_DSC2377CINCINNATI — The first twenty minutes of Wednesday night’s Crosstown Shootout Classic were grotesquely beautiful.

It was ugly, at times horrendous, offensive basketball on display at US Bank Arena, replete with inaccurate passes, clanged jumpers and stretches of incompetence from both teams. It was ferociously competed and wildly entertaining, however, as Xavier and Cincinnati traded half-hearted runs for twenty minutes, neither pulling away by more than five. The half ended with the margin a mere two points, a poor omen for the outmatched Musketeers.

As evenly contested as the first half was, nearly everything had tipped Xavier’s way. They had grounded the game to a relative halt, waiting for a good look on offense and playing ferocious pack-line defense, remaining a constant barrier between their man and the basket. Travis Taylor delivered the best half of his career in a Musketeer uniform, piling up eight points and eight rebounds, managing to prevent the rebound margin from reaching obscene levels. Xavier even managed to manufacture a handful of fast break opportunities of their own, exerting maximum effort to generate just the twenty-four points they posted.

UC’s talented and experienced backcourt simply continued taking what the Xavier defense gave them, the outside shot, and yet could not capitalize, missing a litany of looks which usually find the bottom of the net. Cincinnati matched the intensity and energy of Xavier yet weren’t required to execute a succession of passes just to create a look. A few dribble handoffs here, a simple screen there and a UC perimeter player had the ball in their hands one-on-one with a defender, frequently off-balance.

For all of the flak Chris Mack has received in his short tenure as Xavier’s lead man regarding the unorginality of his offense, the Bearcats’ offense possesses some of the same characteristics. When you manage to recruit the type of athletes Mick Cronin has it would be over-coaching to construct some intricate offense consisting of carefully designed plays. He has a trio of perimeter players equally capable of launching a three and driving to the whole, a pair of 4’s with a jump shot and boundless hops and a pair of seven-footers ready to clean up the mess. Merely creating space and providing the ball was frequently enough for the Bearcats Wednesday night, a game plan far too easily accomplished against the outflanked Musketeers.

Once the imminently makable looks the Bearcats’ continued to miss in the first half began to drop in the second, the tide shift. A quartet of costly Xavier turnovers, at least two of which occurred in the backcourt, placed it firmly in jeopardy, digging themselves a hole they had entirely two few shovels to dig out of. The already limited Musketeer rotation was further constricted by persistent foul trouble for Justin Martin, who was called for two fouls before the first media timeout, and second half health issues for Semaj Christon and Dee Davis. The latter two injuries were particularly damaging, forcing Brad Redford to serve as the de facto point guard against the Bearcats’ esteemed in-your-face defense. Redford competed tonight, as he always does, and was sensational the last time the Musketeers took the floor. However, he simply isn’t on the same playing field athletically as the guards UC continued to trot onto the floor, and the 31 minutes he was required to play were a death sentence to the Musketeers. He was a complete non-factor on offense, save one three in the first half, and was generally as overmatched as most expected him to be going into the game.

The second half provided the regression to the mean from the deceivingly close first half, displaying who truly was the better team on the floor at US Bank Arena and subsequently reinforcing the point throughout the second half, just in case you had forgot. Even the Xavier student section was suffocated by the Bearcats’ stifling defense, swallowing up a number of Xavier possessions before they began and sapping the Musketeers of whatever modicum of gas they had left in the tank. Xavier kept the game close for a half through sheer force of will and a healthy amount of good fortune due to Cincinnati’s cold streak. However, while the superior team reared its dangerous head in the second stanza, the intensity of the first is what’s most important here.

After the tumultuous ending to last year’s Crosstown Shootout Classic, and the rumors of its cancellation swirling for months following the incident, Wednesday night was a night of incredible importance in terms of the rivalry. Another unseemly incident, on the court or in the stands, would have threatened the continuation of the rivalry, while its playing on a neutral floor also offered a test run of sorts. The game could not have gone any better, particularly during the ugly-yet-exhilarating first half where each side exchanged cheers after scores, exhibiting an NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere. There was a buzz about the downtrodden arena from the moment you walked in; the game felt important. While the Crosstown Shootout Classic has long been overlooked on a national scale it is crucial to the success of college basketball in the city of Cincinnati, and tonight’s successful rendition was crucial after last year. While I, along with the majority it seems, still prefer the rivalry to occur on campus, if only so we aren’t forced to enter decrepit US Bank Arena, the atmosphere was surprisingly impressive. Even if only a brief two-year buffer to soothe the discord between the two programs, the stint at US Bank Arena opened a successful one.

Entering halftime, the Crosstown Shootout Classic had been resuscitated. The energy was flowing from both halves of the arena, support flowing for both Xavier and Cincinnati. The margin had been narrow throughout and the game played with an incredible amount of emotion. It was impossible not to love, watching these two rivals give everything they had and, at least on the surface, be equal counterparts. The Bearcats’ inevitable pulling away in the second half shouldn’t change that. The rivalry is back, even if the disparity in talent, depth and experience was simply too great for the Musketeers to overcome this year.