The latest chapter in the heated city rivalry between Xavier and Cincinnati ended with raised fists, elevated tempers and spilled blood.
With Xavier leading 76-53 and less than 10 seconds remaining in the game, Musketeers star Tu Holloway and Cincinnati guard Ge'Lawn Guyn got nose-to-nose squawking back and forth with one another in front of the Bearcats bench. Xavier freshman Dezmine Wells came to the defense of his teammate and shoved Guyn, inciting a wild benches-clearing melee that resulted in referees ending the game with 9.4 seconds still left on the clock.
The ugliest moments of the brawl both involved Cincinnati players and Xavier 7-foot senior Kenny Frease. First 6-foot-9, 260-pound Yancy Gates dropped an unsuspecting Frease with a right hand to the jaw in the middle of the scrum. Then Cheikh Mbodj appeared to connect with a stomp to Frease's head while the Xavier big man was bloodied and kneeling on the ground.
Maybe the only thing more reprehensible than the incident itself were the comments made by Xavier's two best players in the postgame press conference. Instead of apologizing for their role in the melee escalating, Holloway and guard Mark Lyons seemed almost proud of how they behaved.
"We're the tougher team," said Holloway, who later apologized on Twitter. "We're grown men over here. We've got a whole lot of gangsters over here. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court. We went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game. That's our motto: Zip 'em up. And that's what we just did to them."
Added Lyons: "If somebody put their hands in your face and tried to do something to you, where we're from you're going to do something back. We're not going to sit there and get our face beat in by somebody like Yancy Gates."
It's unclear how many players on both sides will face punishment for their actions or their comments, but it's safe to say at least Gates and Mbodj will likely be suspended. Frease knelt at mid-court for a minute or two as both coaching staffs and the refs attempted to separate the two teams, but he recovered enough to gesture to the home crowd to celebrate the victory on his way to the locker room.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin admitted in his postgame news conference that the fight did not come as a surprise to him because of the way Xavier's players had trash-talked to the Bearcats bench as the lead ballooned in the second half. Although Cronin said he "repeatedly asked the officials to stop it" and even tried to get a timeout just before the brawl began to allow tempers to cool, he did not excuse his own players for their actions.
"I made everybody take their jersey off and they will not put it on again until they have a full understanding of where they go to school, what the university stands for and how lucky they are to even be here let alone have a scholarship."
The fight will overshadow a dominant performance from a Xavier team that looked worthy of its top 10 national ranking and early hype as a Final Four contender. The Musketeers (8-0) limited the Bearcats to 1-of-16 3-point shooting and led by 10 or more the entire second half, avenging last year's 66-46 loss to Cincinnati and winning for the ninth time in the past 13 Crosstown Shootout games.
[ Related: Eisenberg: Punishments don't pack enough punch ]
Intensity is always high whenever Xavier and Cincinnati meet, but a pregame comment by Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick may have elevated tensions. Asked earlier in the week whether preseason All-American Holloway would start for the Bearcats, Kilpatrick brashly told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "Would he, with the players we have now? I would say no."
The Xavier crowd clearly took offense to those comments, chanting "Who's Kilpatrick?" each time the Cincinnati guard touched the ball. Holloway got the better of the individual matchup, scoring 17 points and dishing out six assists compared to Kilpatrick's 11 points on 3-for-12 shooting.
Moments after referees separated both teams and called the game, Holloway began his celebration by standing on the scorer's table. It was indeed an impressive win for the Musketeers, but all that will be remembered is the ugly way it finished.
"No one, no one regrets our ending to the UC game more than me," Xavier coach Chris Mack tweeted after the game. "My 5 and 6 yr olds were in the stands. Both teams were at fault period. I'm disappointed to the enth degree. I've got good kids. Mick's got good kids. They made DUMB decisions."
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