NASHVILLE -- In December, they brawled. In March, they balled.
Cincinnati and Xavier -- two crosstown rivals that elicited national scorn for an ugly incident at the end of their Dec. 10 meeting -- are both heading to the Sweet 16. It's a remarkable accomplishment considering how easily their seasons could have derailed.
The sixth-seeded Bearcats punched their ticket to Boston -- where they'll meet another in-state nemesis, Ohio State -- with a bruising, tightly contested 62-56 win Sunday over third-seeded Florida State. While no actual fisticuffs were exchanged, "It was a boxing match out there," Cincinnati guard Dion Dixon said of a game marked by fierce rebounding battles, heated scrums for loose balls and a haze of bodies falling to the floor. "Ten rounds. We won it in the last round."
Both teams shot just 38 percent, and the score was stuck down in the 40s late into the second half, yet it was incredibly fun to watch. Neither team held more than a three-point lead between the 2:45 mark of the first half right up and the last 58 seconds of the game, when a pair of costly turnovers by Florida State point guard Luke Loucks helped the Bearcats pull away.
"We knew it was coming," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said of the game's physical nature. Asked why his team ultimately proved a hair tougher than the ACC tournament champion Seminoles, he said: "We've had a lot of games where we were able to shut people down late in the game. We've been in must-win mode since Dec. 10, so it's nothing new for these guys."
Meanwhile, less than an hour earlier in Greensboro, N.C., another team that's spent three months scratching its way back from the bottom rallied from a 15-point deficit against tourney darling Lehigh, pulling away from the Mountain Hawks in the second half to win 70-58. No. 10 seed Xavier, which pulled off a last-second win over Notre Dame two nights earlier, gets a date with No. 3 seed Baylor next week in Atlanta.
"It shows the character," said Muskies guard Tu Holloway, whose postgame comments about "gangsters" that fateful day in December garnered national outrage and touched off a prolonged on-court funk. "I remember Coach [Chris] Mack was talking to us about how everyone's taking shots at us around the country. And after going through so much, we're still standing today in the last 16 teams."
Cincinnati players only got word of their rival's victory from the reporters in their Bridgestone Arena locker room. Predictably, they didn't have much to say about it. While Xavier's run may be surprising in the context of its season (it lost five of six after the brawl and went a modest 10-6 in the Atlantic 10), the Sweet 16 has become commonplace for that program. This will be it fourth trip in five years, a feat matched only by North Carolina, Michigan State and Kansas.
For the Bearcats, however, Sunday's win marked a milestone for a program that went through several years of rebuilding following longtime coach Bob Huggins' ouster in 2005. This will be their first Sweet 16 trip in 11 years.
"We don't talk much about anything pre-Cronin," junior guard Cashmere Wright said of his team's sixth-year coach. "It's the first time he's been to the Sweet 16. With all the controversy, it was a hard season, but it was all worth it to get this far."
Cronin, just like his players, is tired of reliving the events of Dec. 10.
"That situation is long gone, it's over with," he said. "Young people make mistakes everyday across America, it's just not always on television."
The most lasting image was that of forward Yancy Gates punching Xavier forward Kenny Frease in the face, after which he served a six-game suspension. Frease was the Musketeers' big star against Lehigh, notching 25 points and 12 rebounds. Gates came into Sunday's game on a tear -- scoring 23 points against Georgetown and 18 points against second-ranked Syracuse in two Big East tournament wins, then notching 15 points and 10 boards in Friday's NCAA opener against Texas -- but Florida State was determined to shut him down. Led by bulky center Bernard James, the 'Noles spent most of the game denying entry passes to Gates, who finished with just eight points.
The last of those, however, came on free throws after he was fouled by James on a rebound with 35 seconds left. As he went to the line for what essentially were game-sealing shots, Cincinnati fans appreciatively shouted his name.
"The fight overshadowed everything I had done previously to that," said the senior. "It's been all about getting back on the court, restoring my name and image."
Of all the years, this will be the first the two Queen City schools appear in the Sweet 16 together.
"We've been on a mission to define what Cincinnati basketball is all about, what our university and city is all about, and the kids have banded together to do that," said Cronin. "It hasn't been easy. These guys' backs have been against the wall since that day. Not because of the issue, because we were 5-3 and our RPI was skyrocketing. It was going the wrong way in a hurry. We were so far from the NCAA tournament, we couldn't see it with binoculars."
This weekend in Nashville they saw it first-hand, and they'll get to do it at least once more. So will Xavier. What started as a season of indignity for both programs is culminating with improbable celebrations.