CINCINNATI — Chris Mack called the Skyline Crosstown Shootout a "players’ game" this week. The point the Xavier University head coach was trying to make was that whether it was his team or the rival University of Cincinnati that won, the game wouldn’t be decided by X’s or O’s, cute play designs or exotic defenses.
It was going to come down to players making plays at the right time without a coach’s tether.
"Certain guys shy away from the big moment. Certain guys step up," said Mack Wednesday night after this year’s Shootout had ended. "Obviously, Dee did that."
Dee Davis certainly did. The senior point guard isn’t asked to score all of the time for the Musketeers but he asserted himself from the outset and in every phase he was the deciding factor in Xavier’s 59-57 win in front of a raucous, sold-out, wear all the black you can possibly find in your closet crowd of 13,176 at UC’s Fifth Third Arena.
Davis scored a game-high 16 points, including hitting all five of his 3-point attempts, while adding eight assists and three rebounds. Davis had scored just 11 points in the last three games and only once in the past 10 games had he scored in double digits. He had made just 18 percent of his 3-point attempts in Big East play but he made four treys in the opening 20 minutes Wednesday and then swished the only field goal the Musketeers made in the final eight minutes of the second half with 52 seconds to play as Xavier found a way make one more play than the Bearcats.
The return of the Shootout to campus after two seasons of neutral court play at U.S. Bank Arena downtown was everything anyone could have hoped for, with the exception of UC fans looking for one last play to go their way. The atmosphere was electric, juiced for a rivalry game between two teams still trying to find the right rhythm to their seasons, two teams still trying to prove to the NCAA that they deserve to play in the March Madness tournament field of 68.
UC rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to twice take leads in the final 70 seconds. Davis’ 3-pointer with five seconds left before halftime was the seventh straight shot Xavier hit and gave XU its biggest lead of the game. It was the eighth 3-pointer the Musketeers made in the first half. They took just two from long range in the second half. They made them both.
Freshman Gary Clark, who had his best game in three weeks with 14 points and seven rebounds, gave UC its first lead since being ahead 18-15 when he dropped in a short jumper with 1:10 left on the clock that broke a 53-53 tie.
Xavier hadn’t made a field goal since James Farr’s jump shot with 8:26 remained and now it was looking for an answer. Davis lofted a high-arching rainbow from the right wing. It found nothing but the inside of the net cords.
"I pride myself on being a consummate point guard, which is doing what your team needs you to do," said Dee Davis. "If guys are making shots I’m going to make sure they get open looks, but if it means for me to make shots for us to continue to win then I’m going to shoot the ball."
This was one of those games that left you disappointed one of the teams lost. That’s because UC didn’t lose it. Xavier won it. The Bearcats answered Davis’ three by regaining the lead, 57-56, on two free throws by sophomore point guard Troy Caupain with 19 seconds left. Junior guard Farad Cobb, who had already made three 3-pointers, missed one but Caupain beat everyone else to the rebound and was fouled underneath the basket.
Xavier freshman Trevon Bluiett struggled the entire game but he was fouled by Clark with 11.5 seconds left. Bluiett scored his only points of the game at the free throw line to put Xavier back in front.
UC had the ball for a final shot. Xavier took away the first option of a ball screen for Caupain. The Bearcats still got a good look for Cobb. The shot didn’t go. This time Xavier’s Myles Davis got the rebound.
"I told our guys, I’m never happy with a loss, ever. The shame of it is they gave too good of an effort the second half to not win the game," said UC associate head coach Larry Davis. "We’re a team that’s growing up. I think we took a huge step as a team, growing up. We did some really smart things and some really dumb things that probably cost us the game in the end. But, for the first time in three weeks, I thought we fought like the Bearcats in the second half."
Then Larry Davis acknowledged what everyone else who watched the game knew; Dee Davis was the biggest difference.
"Tip my hat to him," said Larry Davis. "Coming into the game, shooting 18 percent in conference play and tonight he made them. We knew he was capable."