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Xavier or UC? For some Cincinnati sports fans in Nashville, it's all about hometown pride

Posted: 5:31 PM, Mar 16, 2018
Updated: 2018-03-17 11:02:45-04

NASHVILLE. Tenn. -- The Queen City convoy was traveling in full force by Friday morning.

Cars with Ohio license plates, many with stickers or plate holders adorned with blue X's or red C's, lined Interstates 71 and 65.

At rest areas, restaurants, and gas stations along the four-plus hour route to Nashville, Xavier Musketeers and Cincinnati Bearcats fans could be found at every stop.

For most of those fans, having two Cincinnati schools playing in the NCAA Tournament with No. 1 and 2 seeds is pretty special. Having both of them within a reasonable drive in Music City this weekend is a bonus.

"It's off the charts," Musketeers fan Carl Hafele said. "It's the greatest thing to happen for Cincinnati in a long time."

Imagine how many more Queen City fans could be headed here over the weekend after both teams won Friday. That created an all-Cincinnati doubleheader Sunday night with UC vs. No. 7 seed Nevada at 6:10 p.m. ET followed by Xavier vs. No. 9 seed Florida State at approximately 8:40 p.m. 

The Bearcats and Musketeers spent several weeks together ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. Both could be capable of making Final Four runs.

Prior to the first-round game between the Bearcats and No. 15 seed Georgia State, the bars on Broadway were packed and rooftops overflowing on a sunny, 60-degree day. The seating bowl in Bridgestone arena was predominantly filled with Bearcats fans, who had a few nervous moments when Georgia State took the lead late in the second half. UC ultimately pulled away for a 68-53 win.

Jarron Cumberland led the way with 27 points and 11 rebounds. Gary Clark added 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Bearcats (31-4).  

Xavier (29-5) followed Friday night with a 102-83 win over 16th-seeded Texas Southern. J.P. Macura scored 29 points, Trevon Bluiett 26 and Karem Kanter added 24.

The novelty of having both teams sharing the same NCAA Tournament venue and the same locker room for their separate sessions was not lost on Musketeers coach Chris Mack, who grew up in Cincinnati.

"I always thought both our programs were about to explode," Mack said. "Looking at what both programs have done over the last … 25 years or so, has been amazing. And then to have the two seasons that we've had speaks well to the area and basketball in this area."

John McGowan, who drove to Nashville from Springdale on Friday morning, wore a T-shirt with both Xavier and UC logos as he entered Bridgestone Arena.

McGowan said he had no affiliation to either school but made the drive simply to root for his hometown, which he called the best college basketball town in America.

"This is epic," he said. "No loyalty, it's all that both teams are here in Nashville, a number one and two seed, nothing better than that."

Of course, there is no denying the undercurrent of acrimony that always permeates this rivalry.

Xavier won this year's Crosstown Shootout, 89-76, at Cintas Center. The fireworks came after the game when Bearcats coach Mick Cronin had words with Macura.

That isn't the first time there's been bad blood during the Shootout, which featured an ugly brawl in 2011 that caused the game to be played at a neutral site for two seasons.

The Bearcats lead the all-time series between the two, 50-35, but the Musketeers have won five of the past seven matchups with their inner-city rivals and 15 of the past 22 meetings.

Both teams being in Nashville created some challenges for Cronin.

"I have Xavier friends," Cronin said Thursday. "It costs me more money, to be honest with you, because they want to come to both sessions. A couple of guys I owe favors to are big Xavier boosters but are friends of mine. It's going to end up costing me four or 500 (dollars), them being in the same bracket as us."

Bryant Dold of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, beamed in full Bearcats regalia on Friday as he entered the arena.

"I love it," he said. "I get to go with my dad and grandpa to our first March Madness game. They're only a couple miles apart. What cities get to say that?"

Dold's other grandfather had been a Xavier fan, he added. 

"He's up in Heaven, and I know he's rooting," Dold said.

Of course, there are plenty of fans who will be true to the rivalry this weekend in Nashville and root against either the team in blue or the one in red. Others chose to remain positive in hopes they leave Tennessee on Sunday night with two local teams headed to the Sweet 16.

"We won't root against them," Hafele said of the Bearcats. "We'll be indifferent."