CINCINNATI — Three months after they traded punches and sullied reputations, the city's two Division I teams had reason to be proud.
Cincinnati and Xavier overcame a scarring December day in their own way and at their own pace, fending up in the same place. They're both going to the NCAA tournament.
The Bearcats (24-10) and the Musketeers (21-12) received at-large bids on Sunday, extending seasons that were very much in doubt shortly after they got started. Both reached the finals of their conference tournaments — Cincinnati lost to Louisville in the Big East on Saturday night, Xavier to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 on Sunday.
"I knew it was going to be a journey this year," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said on Sunday. "It was a little more eventful than I'd hoped."
With an upbeat ending for both.
The Bearcats took another step in rebuilding a program that hit bottom after coach Bob Huggins was forced out. They reached the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in six years, and now have done it twice in a row. The sixth-seeded Bearcats play Texas in Nashville on Friday.
Xavier is in the tournament for the seventh straight season and the 11th time in 12 years, though this appearance comes at the end of a trying season. The 10th-seeded Musketeers play Notre Dame — one of Cincinnati's Big East opponents — in Greensboro, S.C., on Friday.
Three months ago, none if it was at all certain.
Xavier was No. 8 nationally and improved to 8-0 with a 23-point win over Cincinnati on the Musketeers' home court on Dec. 10. With 9.4 seconds left, the standard trash talk turned into taunting, pushing and punching.
When Cronin and Xavier coach Chris Mack went home that night, they were staring at something that neither of them had ever encountered — teams about to take big hits in their reputations and on the court.
"If you'd have told me the night of Dec. 10, 'Don't worry, you're going to have 24 wins, lose in the Big East championship game, beat more ranked teams than any other team in the country, be (here) doing these interviews,' I would have taken it," Cronin said.
From that day, they took different routes to get to the same place, and none of it was easy.
"I am proud of how this group came together," Mack said, following Xavier's 67-56 loss to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 title game Sunday in Atlantic City. "It's been a difficult year, a lot of ups and downs. But (for) this group of guys, the way we were able to come together at the end of the year, get to the point where we played in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship ... I loved coaching this group this weekend."
The fallout from the brawl lingered well into the season for both teams. Each school suspended four players. Cincinnati power forward Yancy Gates got one of the most severe penalties, sitting six games for throwing punches. He broke down while apologizing after the suspension was announced, and set out to refurbish his reputation.
"I think he learned from the experience," Cronin said. "I think he's a wiser person."
Gates, a Cincinnati native who knows and values the school's rich basketball history, now will be remembered as part of the group that restored the program to national prominence. The Bearcats lost to Big East rival Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season.
"I think it will definitely be another step if we win more than one game," Gates said. "If we go a little further in the tournament, we'll take the next step."
Xavier had a tougher time getting past the December suspensions with three of its top players missing for various lengths of time. Their streak of five straight regular-season Atlantic 10 titles ended when they finished third.
The Musketeers also were in danger of not making the NCAA tournament before they went to their conference tournament and played two solid games while beating Dayton and Saint Louis to get to the final.
By then, they knew they had made it, too.
"We have more basketball to play," Mack said.
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