Xavier, Cincinnati left to pick up pieces following shocking brawl
CINCINNATI -- Kenny Frease, Xavier's 7-foot, 275-pound center, emerged on all fours from the riot of fists and shoves. A dazed expression on his face, his left cheek bloody, Frease crawled away from the center of a fracas that emptied both benches of players and will define forever what a city's signature basketball game is all about.
The Crosstown Shootout, Cincinnati's tribute to its two Division I basketball programs, is a weeklong party of pride and passion. Seventy-nine times Xavier has played the University of Cincinnati, and every game is ragged glory, the closest the polite and friendly Queen City comes to waging war.
There have been other games in this rivalry that have stirred the local blood. In 1994, after an overtime Xavier win, UC coach Bob Huggins refused to shake XU coach Pete Gillen's hand. Afterward, Gillen could be heard calling Huggins a "cheater.'' Huggins responded that Gillen was a "phony.''
On another occasion, in 1967, a Xavier player named Joe Pangrazio mixed it up with Cincinnati's Raleigh Wynn. Pangrazio got hissed enough, he grabbed a crutch from a fan in the stands, and threw it at Wynn. Refs ejected both, but couldn't do anything about the debris fans hurled onto the court.
The blood gets stirred every year. Saturday, it was shed.
Suspensions will follow. Already, there is talk of discontinuing a game that began in 1928, a game that, were it between two teams in New York, Chicago or Philly, would be known nationally as the best city rivalry in quasi-amateur basketball. It is exactly that, even if the venue is outside the footlights.
Only now, if you look hard enough, you'll see that the rivalry looks a lot like Kenny Frease did Saturday, in its aftermath.
The video will be watched, the punches will sorted through and assigned. It's questionable whether either team will have enough eligible bodies to play its next game. But immediately after the game Saturday -- a 76-53 Xavier win, if it matters -- all that was available was talk.
Some of it was wise, some calming. And some of it was shockingly skewed.
"That's what you're going to see from Xavier and Cincinnati,'' offered XU point guard and All-America, Tu Holloway.
An all-out throwdown?
"We're grown men over here,'' Holloway explained, referring to his team. "We got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court.''
While we pondered the difference between "gangsters'' and "thugs'', Holloway continued.
Holloway readily admitted he might have instigated the fight. With time winding down, he passed the UC bench, openly taunting all within earshot. "I talked to that whole staff. I said, this is my city. I'm cut from a different cloth. None of them guys on their team is like me. I let the whole staff know none of them was like me.''
The problem started on Thursday. UC sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick, a New Yorker like Holloway, said on local radio that not only was he a better player than Holloway, but so were his mates in the UC backcourt. When asked if he thought Tu could start for the Bearcats, Kilpatrick offered an unequivocal no.
"You don't let people disrespect you. That's what I'm about. I don't regret anything that happened,'' said Holloway.
At least one person did. UC coach Mick Cronin had everything right by the time he addressed the media after the game. Cronin became the unofficial conscience of an unconscionable day.
"(Players) need to have respect that they are on scholarship and people come to see them play,'' Cronin said. "They're (representing) institutions of higher learning. I go to a school where they discovered a vaccine for polio. I think that's more important than who wins a basketball game.''
Cronin called it "a complete embarrassment, no matter who started what.''
The game is always chippy and occasionally incendiary, if not to this extreme. Four miles of interstate separate the two schools. Cincinnati is public and large, with 40,000 students. Xavier is private and small (4,000 students.) UC sees itself as big brother; Xavier sees itself as a cut above.
Gillen and Huggins so disliked each other there was talk then of canceling the series. Huggins on occasion referred to Gillen as "pumpkinhead.'' Gillen would make subtle mention of how old Huggins' players seemed to be.
The rivalry has also had its share of excellence. Saturday was the 17th time in the last 23 years that one of both of the teams came in ranked nationally. Players who have performed in the Shootout would comprise an all-star team, everyone from Oscar Robertson to national players of the year David West and Kenyon Martin.
They see each other around town. If they lose, they have to listen to the other guy for a year. "I see 'em at the barbershop,'' Holloway said. "I see 'em at the mall.'' UC drilled Xavier last year, a game in which Holloway had just five points. "I had to have payback today,'' he said.
The game was typically woof-filled, to such an extent Cronin said he warned the officials after halftime. Don't be hesitant with the technical fouls, he said. As it was, the only one who got T'd up was XU coach Chris Mack.
The video will provide deeper truth. In the aftermath, this was clear: In the last minute, Holloway was having words with UC guard Ge'Lawn Guyn. Guyn appears to have bumped Holloway's chest. XU freshman Dez Wells shoved a UC player. Punches were thrown.
Frease waded into the eye of it all, seemingly attempting peace. UC's Yancy Gates sucker-punched Frease in the face, just below the left eye. Frease went down. Onlookers said Cincinnati center Cheikh Mbodj then kicked Frease.
Moments later, Frease staggered to center court, blood streaming down his face. Holloway exulted, climbing atop press row as if Xavier had just won a national championship. The Bearcats walked off the court, to unsportsmanlike chants from the Xavier student section.
The refs stopped the game with 9.4 seconds to play. The fallout is only beginning.