An ongoing (and highly subjective) series highlighting the ten greatest moments in Cincinnati Sports History.
7. Xavier defeats Princeton 65-58 to advance to the 1999 NIT Semifinals.
Yeah, that's what I'm talkin about! A quarterfinal NIT victory is #7 on my top ten Cincinnati sports moments of all time! This should make it clear that (A) Cincinnati sports fans have absolutely nothing else to care about over the winter and (B) I really like Xavier (we'll get back to this later). To the event:
Wednesday, March 19th, 1999, the Cincinnati Gardens. I somehow managed to make it home from Chicago for this game, since I can't remember how I did it I'll just have to assume that I cut some classes and took the Greyhound. The bus ride was always action packed (especially the super-depressing transfer at the Indianapolis bus station) but couldn't be beat for the cost (30 bucks, I believe). And besides I had to watch my boys play one last time.
When I say my "boys", I am of course referring to the seniors of that year's team; Lenny Brown, Gary Lumpkin, and James Posey. This was the team that had knocked off UC and Danny Fortson in 1996 to put the Xavier program on the map nationally. UC was ranked #1 at the time, and Fortson was on the cover of SI's college basketball preview that year. X had had some NCAA success in the past, but this was a shocking road win early in the season that led to X being ranked in or near the top 25 for nearly the next two full seasons. Basically that kind of credibility was unheard of for Xavier, a small private school that had previously played in the now-defunct MCC before joining the Atlantic 10. The Musketeers got bounced by a tough UCLA team in the 2nd round of NCAA tourney in 97, then went on to have a very strong 97-98 season (possibly the best Xavier team ever, Posey came of the bench as a Junior that year) only to fall in a first round matchup against the University of Washington in the 98 NCAAs (that game still haunts me). The following year their key player (and arguably the most talented of the group, including Posey) Darnell Williams suffered a major knee injury playing in an offseason exhibition. Williams' injury, coupled with the loss of X's frontcourt from the previous two seasons (TJ Johnson and Torraye Braggs) to graduation, left the 98-99 season as a huge disappointment for Xavier fans. The team failed to make the NCAA tournament and landed in the dreaded NIT.
The Princeton game was the last game Xavier's seniors would ever play at the Cincinnati Gardens, since they moved into their fancy new (read: sterile and totally boring) on-campus facility, the Cintas Center in the 2000-2001 season. The Gardens was the best place to watch a basketball game in Cincinnati (the Cincinnati Royals played there from 1957 to 1972). It was also a great place to watch hockey games, circuses, roller derbies, monster truck jams, and gun shows. Opposing teams hated playing there as they rarely got a chance to practice before their game because of all the other events taking place. It was a fairly large, poorly lit concrete box that always smelled like a combination of stale popcorn, sweat, and some sort of unidentifiable animal musk (leftover from the circus I hope). When the place got loud (which it often did), the noise level was deafening.
The Princeton game was a fitting end for the Musketeer basketball team that season. X was very talented around the perimeter (Lenny Brown was their leading scorer at the 2), and extremely inexperienced in the frontcourt (they started two Freshmen at the 4 and 5, Kevin Frey and Aaron Turner). When the guards and Posey got hot, the team was unstoppable. When Brown and Lumpkin's shots weren't falling, the team was pedestrian to quite-pedestrian. In the first half of the Princeton game, the latter scenario took place with Princeton running its frighteningly efficient motion offense to perfection and Xavier struggling to find open looks. X's coach at the time, the ever quotable Skip Prosser described it thusly:
The beginning (of that game) was a clinic of dunks and layups for them. They were running their offense around us like we were a bunch of orange cones.
God love him. Anyway, halftime score, Princeton 35 Xavier 23. Doesn't sound bad, but a 12 point deficit against Princeton is a 20 point deficit against any other team. Usually falling behind a team that slows down the tempo of the game like Princeton just plays right into their hands. As the second half started, I was prepared for terrible shot selection and turnovers, but this would not be Xavier's fate on this fine day.
So I think this is where I'm gonna start to get a little cheesy (dial-a-cliche time, if you will). You know how when you're watching a sporting event and you can literally see one team decide that it's going to win the game (Cliche #1). That's what happened to X. They had been pressing full-court the whole game, but in the 2nd half, it finally started to get to Princeton. They comeback was pretty slow at first (Princeton extended its lead to 15 on an early three), but once Princeton started turning the ball over, the pace picked up and the crowd started to smell the blood in the water (#2). Princeton was only able to get off 19 shots in the 2nd half; within ten minutes after the half started, it was clear that by the sheer application of their will, Xavier was going to win the game (#3). Everyone in the Gardens knew what was happening and cheered and screamed accordingly. I had probably been to upwards of 40 games at that gym in my life, and I had never heard it sound quite like that. I was 20 years old at the time, close to the same age as a lot of the players on the court. It's kind of weird looking back on that now because I realize now how young college athletes really are (and conversely, how old I am), but at the time, they were my peers. I felt that once in a lifetime bond with them (#4). They weren't pro athletes that were making tons of money and receiving constant attention. They weren't even pampered jocks at a big time state school with a huge booster network. They were guys that weren't heavily recruited out of high school from some rough neighborhoods (Brown and Lumpkin were both from Wilmington DE) who were taking classes, studying for exams (or at least having some nuns study for them), playing a shitload of mid-major basketball games on regional cable and the occasionaloff-season pickup game at Xavier's gym. I basically lived out all of my sports fantasies through them vicariously. These were guys that most people could never pick out of a lineup, but for me, they were my somewhat secret imaginary friends. Much cooler and blacker than my real friends.
Xavier took the lead for good 50-49, with 6 minutes left in the game. Posey knocked down some huge shots in the 2nd half, including some must-have free throws in the game's waning minutes. He was the most talented of the bunch but still seemed to score all of his baskets via the garbage route. He was a hustle player; the perfect embodiment of that team. When the buzzer sounded and X had won the game 65-58, the PA system started playing New York, New York by Sinatra. My brother (age 26) and I stormed the court. We got out into the middle of the floor, found Posey, and picked him up (my brother did most of the picking up, since he was, and still is, much more dieseled than I). As we were carrying James around the court, we caught a glimpse of Byron Larkin, XU's all time leading scorer, color commentator, and guy who would regularly destroy us in the lunch time pickup games at X's gym seated at the press row. He was in the middle of doing the postgame wrap-up when he saw us and started laughing. We gave him a thumbs up (accompanied by the obligatory shit-eating grin) and laughed right back. After we finally let Posey go, my brother was so wired that we hit up the souvenir stand for some jerseys (we come from very cheap German stock, the thought of buying anything from the overpriced kiosks at the stadium had never occurred to us before). They were out of Poseys so we ended up with a Lloyd Price (which turned out to be a huge mistake) and a Darnell Williams. Guess which one I got?
That would be Darnell Williams. The next Michael Finley (only more clutch) if he hadn't blown out his knee. He was NBA material, no doubt. And yes, I am a huge nerd. By the way, Xavier went on to lose to Clemson in the semis by 3 points, and then destroy Oregon in the consolation game (they have those in the NIT!) by 30. So the Seniors went out on a win in a tournament. Only two other teams get to do that (the NIT and NCAA champ), so they were clearly the 3rd ranked team in the nation that year. In my heart anyway (#5). Darnell came back from his knee surgery the next season without his old explosiveness. He gritted it out anyway and adjusted his game to become a 3-point specialist (and a good one at that). He poured in 18 first half points against UC that next year to help in yet another upset of the #1 team in the nation. And yes, I still wear the jersey. Occasionally.