CINCINNATI -- UC coach Mick Cronin was asked about 17 times the other day to admit how important the Crosstown Shootout with Xavier is. He dodged. He ducked. He denied.
But Cronin’s a Cincinnati guy. You know he wants this game badly every year.
He got it this year with a 86-78 victory before a crowd of 13,477 at Fifth Third Arena. UC won despite a historic Crosstown performance from Trevor Bluiett, who scored 40 points on 9-for-11 shooting from 3-point range.
The Bearcats out-rebounded Xavier by nine and their defense forced Xavier to shoot 26.7 percent in the second half. As much as Cronin downplayed the game to the media, his team’s effort indicates he did not downplay it to them.
“We got our a** kicked on the glass,” XU coach Chris Mack said. “We played well enough to win. You get a performance like Trevor Bluiett shooting the ball ... If you can’t keep Cincinnati off the glass, which is easier said than done, you’re not winning. We couldn’t. We didn’t.”
This was a game UC needed to show the intra-city rivalry was genuinely a rivalry. Xavier had won three in a row and seven of nine. With the Muskies in the Big East and the Bearcats in the American Athletic Conference, the separation gap could easily get wider if the Bearcats don’t start winning.
If Cronin thought that, he wouldn’t admit — even afterward.
“I don’t think too much about,” he said. “Other than everybody driving me crazy. I try to focus on my job and trying to get our team better. But it’s nice to win.”
“It’s big,” Gary Clark said. “You want to beat the guys across the street.”
Clark, who did not score last year, had 13 points, 11 rebounds and three assists.
UC did score a semi-coup by landing Jarron Cumberland, the Wilmington High star both teams were recruiting. That turned handy Thursday night. Cumberland came off the bench to score 15 points and was key to UC's second-half charge.
But winning a recruit is one thing. You’ve got to beat the other guys on the court.
UC was in good shape to do that this year. The Bearcats came in hotter, winners of 10 in a row. The Bearcats were deeper. And the Bearcats were at home.
But Xavier had Bluiett. Bluiett became a Crosstown legend. By halftime.
Bluiett had 26 points by half on 6-for-6 shooting from 3 land. The last one came at the buzzer from the right side. He was guarded. He was off balance. And he shot from his hip. It still went in to give Xavier a 44-36 lead.
The rivalry lacks some rancor it once had, although the Bearcat mascot was carrying around a “Myles Davis report card” placard before the game.
But Xavier’s Chris Mack and UC’s Cronin greeted one another warmly before the game and had a nice chat. There’s no Pete Gillen-Bob Huggins feud.
The game was what it always is -- hard-fought, rough in the paint and a little chippy.
Jacob Evans III was called for a technical foul for mouthing off to J.P. Macura after Macura fouled Evans on a made shot. So you had Bluiett making two free throws between Evans' shot and his free throw.
When Edmond Sumner picked up his second foul with 12:51 left in the half, he went to the bench for over five minutes. That seemed to be a very bad sign for Xavier.
But Sumner’s backcourt partner, Bluiett, allowed the Muskies to take semi-control of the game with his 3-point shooting.
The pressure of the three losses in a row seemed to get to UC. The Bearcats were 6-for-14 from the line in the first half.
Kyle Washington, in his first shootout, was 4-for-14 from the line.
UC made a mini-run at the beginning of the second half. But Bluiett answered with a pair of 3s. When he finally missed with 14:05 left in the game, the fans at Fifth Third gave an audible sigh of relief.
When Cumberland hit a 3 to cut the lead to 52-51 with 12:13 left, it started to look like it would be a game -- not merely the Bluiett Show.
UC was able to build a six-point lead a couple of times with inside offense, defense and rebounding. The Bearcats had 19 offensive rebounds to nine for Xavier, outscored Xavier 34-12 in the paint and had 30 second-chance points to four for Xavier.
“God love, Mick, that’s how his teams play,” Mack said. “They play hard. They play tough. They rebound the ball. You’re either going to get punked or you’re not. We got punked.”
It went back and forth down the stretch in Crosstown fashion.
Troy Caupain’s guarded 3 with 56.5 seconds to go with the shot clock running out seemed to seal it. The ball hit the rim and dropped in. “Shooter’s roll,” he said. It made it 84-77.
Caupain, a senior, had never beaten Xavier.
“It’s a great feeling,” Caupain said. “I’m going to enjoy this. It feels good especially home court, Fifth Third for the last time before the new (arena). I’m about ready to jump out of my chair.”
Cronin had to feel the same way — even if he wouldn’t say so.