CINCINNATI -- Troy Caupain spread his arms wide and soaked in the cheers of 13,477 fans as he subbed out in the final second of Thursday’s Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout at Fifth Third Arena.
The 86-78 victory belonged to the University of Cincinnati for the first time in the senior’s career. And oh, was it sweet.
"This is a great feeling. I mean, I wish I was able to have more from my freshman year to now, but I’m not going to look back in the past," said Caupain, who scored 16 points. "I’m going to enjoy this one because this one feels really good."
Caupain was so excited, he said he about jumped out of his chair. Bearcats fans probably felt the same way after watching UC (18-2) win a 20th straight home game, and at the expense of the program’s biggest rival.
Jacob Evans led all Bearcats scorers with 21 points but the story of the game, for No. 19 UC, wasn’t about an individual. While Trevon Bluiett erupted for a career-high 40 points for No. 24 Xavier (14-6), the Bearcats locked down defensively in the second half and dominated the glass throughout.
The most eye-popping stat of the night was UC’s 30-4 advantage in second-chance points. Even Xavier coach Chris Mack was incredulous.
"There’s only one thing you can talk about and we got our ass kicked on the glass. That’s it. We played well enough to win," Mack said.
On a night Bluiett mustered a masterful performance and in a game where Xavier took care of the ball fairly well, the wayward thread that unraveled a nine-point lead – and eventually the outcome – was the battle of the boards. UC finished with a 42-33 advantage behind 19 offensive rebounds.
Junior forward Gary Clark led UC with 11 rebounds and added 13 rebounds. He said controlling the glass boiled down to "being ready."
"Just finding someone and put a body on them and don’t let them manhandle you," Clark said.
Although UC trailed by eight points at the half, coach Mick Cronin said his only real message was for the Bearcats to play harder. They did, holding Xavier to 26.7 percent second-half shooting and forcing about 10 minutes worth of field goal droughts.
"I’ve got to give my players a lot of credit," Cronin said. "They did what they had to do to win the game in a lot of different ways. Different guys made a lot of plays tonight."
What it means for UC
Besides returning Shootout bragging rights to UC for the first time since 2012-13, Thursday’s win provided a major boost to the Bearcats’ NCAA tournament resume. UC now has a win over team in the NCAA RPI’s Top 15.
If Xavier can find a way to knock off Big East peers like Villanova and Butler at home, Thursday’s victory could become even more valuable. Regardless of what lies ahead, Cronin’s team passed a major test against the Musketeers and finished its non-conference schedule on a high note.
"We’ve got a lot of good players. I’ve been trying to tell you guys all year that we’ve got guys that can make plays. We have different guys that can hurt you, different guys that can carry us in different points in the game," Cronin said.
"There was a point in the game where I thought Jarron Cumberland totally changed the game. Jarron, Kyle (Washington) at different times and obviously Jacob (Evans)."
It was Cumberland who delivered a pivotal 3-pointer that narrowed UC’s deficit to one point with 12:28 left. His stickback soon after provided the Bearcats with a 55-54 lead and the home team never trailed again.
The Bearcats struggled from the free-throw line, where they made just 48.6 percent of their shots, but their vaunted defense and rebounding dictated their 11th win in a row. The victory validated the notion that Cronin has one of his better teams, and the multi-talented Bearcats still have plenty of upside.
UC can’t afford any post-Shootout letdowns, though, especially at home. American Athletic Conference cellar dweller South Florida (RPI: 299) comes to Fifth Third Arena at 4 p.m. Sunday.
What it means for XU
The highlight for Xavier was Bluiett’s ability to avenge his struggles in past Shootouts. A year after he scored just three points against UC, his 40 points stand as the most by any Xavier player since David West dropped 47 on Dayton in 2003.
"Once you get a couple to fall in, it’s like the rim is as big as the ocean. I just felt like every shot I was taking was good, and I shot every shot with confidence," Bluiett said.
That said, Bluiett considered the loss disappointing because the Musketeers did not play to their capability.
Xavier’s frontcourt virtually disappeared. RaShid Gaston and Sean O’Mara had zero points and only one trip to the free-throw line (that was Gaston, who was 0-for-1). About the only interior player who made an impact was freshman Tyrique Jones, who played just 12 minutes.
The frontcourt combined for just 12 of Xavier’s 33 rebounds.
Xavier has been far from a pushover on the glass this season, so the disparity was out of character. But it exposed what happens when the Musketeers face dominant frontcourts and determined rebounders, and that’s a big problem to fix at this stage of the season.
"That’s how (Cronin’s) teams play. They play hard, they play with an edge, they rebound the ball. You’re either going to get punked or you’re not. And we got punked. We talked about (rebounding) on Monday, talked it about it on Tuesday, talked about it Wednesday. We talked about it every huddle during the game. But talk is cheap. You’ve got to be able to do it," Mack said.
Xavier missed another opportunity to claim a resume-building road victory and dropped to 1-5 in true road games. That onus is on the team to win at St. John’s on Sunday (RPI: 144), or better yet, at struggling Creighton (13). Victories at Marquette (44) and Seton Hall (46) would be respectable.
There is still a lot of time left in the regular season, but time is ticking.