No. 21 Cincinnati 65, Xavier 54
CINCINNATI (AP)—For 20 tense minutes, Xavier appeared to be getting ready to pull off another arena-hushing upset. Eric Hicks and Jason Maxiell then cut the Musketeers down to their diminished size.
The two bulky Cincinnati power forwards dominated Xavier’s depleted front line Thursday night, leading the No. 21 Bearcats to a 65-54 victory in the city’s annual crosstown grudge match.
The Bearcats (18-5) used their biggest advantage—the one upfront—while pulling away to only their third victory in the last nine games against the Musketeers (11-9), who had neither the size nor the experience to pull off the upset.
“They have big guys who make it hard for you to make your move,” said Will Caudle, Xavier’s only healthy post player. “They were flying around and getting blocked shots.”
Hicks had 16 points and 12 rebounds. Maxiell got the rims shaking with two emphatic dunks that helped Cincinnati take control in the second half, and finished with 15 points and three blocked shots.
The Bearcats led by only six at halftime, then turned up the intensity with their man-to-man defense. Xavier went without a field goal for the first 8 1/2 minutes of the second half.
Cincinnati’s defense leads the nation in forcing errant shots, holding opponents to 36.2 percent from the field. The Musketeers managed only 33.3 percent and got outrebounded 43-36.
“We just pride ourselves on making them take the hardest shots possible, and it really pays off for us,” said forward Armein Kirkland, who had 12 points for Cincinnati.
Besides playing on its home court, Cincinnati had the advantage of a healthy front line. Three of Xavier’s post players are hurt, including leading scorer and rebounder Brian Thornton.
For about a minute midway through the first half, Xavier had three freshmen on the floor.
Maxiell and Hicks, a pair of power forwards who are brawnier and more experienced than anyone on Xavier’s front line, set the tone by scoring 11 of Cincinnati’s first 15 points.
“We do that with anybody,” Hicks said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against. Whatever’s working that night, we’re going to go to it.”
Thornton, who missed the last two game with severe tendinitis in his lower left leg, moved gingerly during warmups with the calf wrapped. He played for only a few minutes at a time and had limited movement, finishing with only five points and one rebound in 13 minutes. Stanley Burrell led Xavier with 12 points.
Without Thornton, Xavier was left with only one healthy post player. Xavier masked the deficiency by opening in a zone defense that worked initially. Cincinnati held a slim lead for most of the first half, but couldn’t pull away.
A pair of off-balance jumpers by slumping point guard Jihad Muhammad put Cincinnati ahead 28-22 at halftime and revved a capacity crowd that was getting a little anxious about Xavier staying so close.
There was reason for the angst: Xavier had won the last two games on Cincinnati’s court. The Musketeers also pulled off the biggest upset of the crosstown series on the same court in 1996, beating the No. 1-ranked Bearcats on Lenny Brown’s jumper at the buzzer.
“We were down six at UC,” Xavier guard Dedrick Finn said. “That’s a good accomplishment. In the second half, we had to be a little stronger, and we didn’t do it.”
Kirkland made a jumper and a three-point play early in the second half that gave Cincinnati a 35-24 lead and got Xavier rattled. The Musketeers had only five turnovers in the first half, but equaled that total in the first 2:24 of the second.
“We became frazzled,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “Those turnovers in the second half really broke the game open.”
Maxiell’s two emphatic dunks and his jumper pushed it to 49-30 with 11:47 left, ending Xavier’s hopes of another upset. Cincinnati led by double-digits the rest of the way.