PHILADELPHIA - They cut down the net with care. Each player climbed the ladder and snipped off his personal piece of twine. Befitting his status as a senior, T.J. Johnson went last and wore the net as a necklace.
Xavier won the Atlantic 10 Tournament Saturday, and their celebration generally conformed to basketball ritual. There were hugs and high-fives, laughter and merriment.
But also this: When Skip Prosser cleared his bench in the last minute of a 77-63 victory over George Washington, his regulars stood on the sideline chanting, ''XU Soldiers.'' Over and over. Loud and long.
''We've been talking about it all year,'' said center Torraye Braggs. ''But this was the first time we did it out loud.''
Sports teams often develop a foxhole mentality during the course of a long campaign, and the Musketeers may have more of it than most. People keep telling them that they are too small and their bench too shallow to compete with the best teams.
Guess what, world? The XU Soldiers are armed and dangerous. They had to be to survive Saturday's title game, which had all of the beauty of a bruise and 53 fouls. Given the choice, Xavier prefers to play an up-tempo game, heavy on transition and easy on the eyes. George Washington's game, meanwhile, is a glimpse of what Valley Forge must have been like: grueling, painful, tedious.
This is the difference between the Atlantic 10 and the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. When Xavier stepped up in class three years ago, it had to embrace a different kind of basketball. The players are thicker in the A-10, and the play more physical. Relatively speaking, the MCC was recess.
There were those, Prosser acknowledges, who thought the Muskies might have ''bit off more than we could chew.'' None of them, evidently, were XU players.
''We've been talking about being soldiers since Day One,'' Johnson said. ''Ever since we joined the Atlantic 10. You've got to be soldiers in this league. The last-place team in the league can come out and hand you your butts if you don't come out ready to play.''
Xavier's military theme is borrowed from a rap song, ''No Limit Soldiers'' by Master P. In the Muskies' barracks, ''No Limit Soldiers'' is No. 1 with a bullet.
''We listen to it and we just get pumped,'' said James Posey, the A-10 tournament's Most Valuable Player. ''We say, 'That's us right there. That's us. We're going to keep fighting to the end. We're not going to give up. We're going to war.' ''
The Muskies trailed Saturday's battle only once, at 2-0, but Prosser's depth precludes comfort. When Braggs was charged with his second foul with 13:42 to play in the first half, the XU Soldiers seemed surrounded. Prosser temporarily pulled his center from the game as a precautionary measure, but a Xavier lead that would reach 11 points was shortly back to two.
Braggs went back in because Prosser had practically no alternative if he was going to keep the Colonials from dominating the inside game, and soon the situation stabilized. Posey, the sixth man, would be the only Musketeer reserve to score. For all their resolve, the XU Soldiers are not deep in reinforcements.
No help coming
''We're going to win with what we've got,'' Posey said. ''That's all we can do. We're not going to change overnight. We're not going to get a 7-6 guy who's going to erase our mistakes. Michael Jordan's not going to come play with us or anything like that. We're just going to work with what we have.''
Where they go from here will be determined tonight, when the NCAA discloses the draw for its tournament. Unless the Muskies are seeded at least sixth in one of the four regions, they will likely be looking at a second-round game against one of the elite eight teams in the country.
This does not bode well for a team with so little depth. But count on this: the XU Soldiers will not hide when the shooting starts.