Thursday, December 16, 1999

A Shootout to end all Shootouts

What if best of both schools played against each other?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They strutted in, emerging like ghosts from the mist of a dark December evening, men of great feats from a few years past and way-back-when.

        They had come to the musty old gym at Schmidt Fieldhouse off Victory Parkway, where in 1928 these two schools first had clashed, to play the greatest basketball game ever in this town.

  G: Oscar Robertson (1958-60)
  G: Ron Bonham (1962-64)
  C: Danny Fortson (1995-97)
  F: Wayne Stevens (1956-58)
  F: Jack Twyman (1952-55)
  Sixth man: Joe Stiffend (1984-87).
  Coach: Ed Jucker (1960-65).

  G: Byron Larkin (1984-88)
  G: Steve Thomas (1962-66)
  C: Dave Piontek (1953-56)
  F: Tyrone Hill (1986-90)
  F: James Posey (1996-99)
  Sixth man: Lenny Brown (1995-99)
  Coach Bob Staak (1979-85)
  Player profiles

        The ultimate Crosstown Shootout. The University of Cincinnati's all-time best against Xavier University's all-time best. Five-on-five, one sub, for eternal bragging rights. Twelve men, the best of the best in this game, transformed back to their glory days.

        There were no fans. The players kept it secret. This was too personal.

        There was Oscar Robertson, the greatest of them all, looking as if he could take on the world, because he could. And Lenny Brown, that assassin of Bearcats himself, flashing the smile that only a man who has hit an upset-clinching, buzzer-beating, No.1-killing shot is allowed to wear.

        Jack Twyman, the Bearcats Hall of Famer, and Dave Piontek, his nemesis from Xavier, stood tall at midcourt, reminiscing about the old days. They were the picture of the '50s, their buzz cuts fresh from the corner barber shop. Tyrone Hill, child of the '80s, laughed at their skin-tight jerseys and hip-hugging shorts.

        Xavier donned its home whites and looked across the court, wondering how it could stop the Big O. The Bearcats wore black. Danny Fortson's muscles bulged from underneath the “Cincinnati” stitched across his chest.

        The old clock on the dingy gym wall reached midnight, and the game began.

The game
        The Musketeers weren't intimidated, despite UC's considerable advantage with Robertson. They were angry, irked by former Bearcat Terry Nelson's

        statement earlier in the week: “Xavier doesn't have a chance. We should blow them out.” Nelson hadn't even made the team.

        The intensity was as steamy as the gym's rusted radiators.

        After Robertson drove to the hoop and fashioned a nifty scoop layup on XU guard Byron Larkin for the game's first points, the Muskies' Steve Thomas responded by popping a 3-pointer from 25 feet. It was clear this was going to be a game of clutch plays.

        There was no better man for that task than Robertson. The Big O played the shiniest game of a stellar career this night. He sank six of eight 3-point attempts — they didn't have those in his day, but he hit them anyway — grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out 14 assists and scored 32 points. Xavier tried everything to stop him, starting with Larkin and including James Posey from the forward's spot, but nothing worked.

        Robertson also made perhaps the most spectacular move in this rivalry. UC had led by as many as 12 points in the second half, but Xavier had cut it to one on a series of baskets by Larkin and Hill when Robertson had come out for a few minutes with a sprained ankle.

        Robertson, still hobbling, came back in with 4:03 to play and immediately re-established his dominance. Starting at the top of the key, he faked Thomas with a wicked crossover, then bolted by Larkin to the hoop. Fortson set a powerful screen on Piontek, clearing the lane for Robertson, who swooped in for the layup.

        At the last second, Posey came in to block the shot, but Robertson adjusted in midair, switching the ball to his left hand and throwing down a one-handed dunk that rattled the old-time wooden backboard off its hinges.

        It was as if Robertson had taken every great game he'd ever played against the Muskies — and everyone else — and rolled the most magnificent plays into one.

        Yet Xavier was still in the game. Hill had been dominating the boards and added 15 points. His inside battle with Fortson had become the war within the war, with the two muscling for position so hard their arms had become bruised deep purple by night's end. Fortson scored more — 24 points, thanks to Robertson's crisp passes — but Hill was the better rebounder, 19-12.

        Hill's rebounding allowed the Muskies second chances offensively, none bigger than with 2:30 remaining. With XU trailing by six, Brown missed a three, but Hill rebounded and passed out to Thomas, who was open on the baseline for a three.

        It was still a three-point UC lead when it came time for the biggest sequence of the night.

        Xavier had one shot to tie, with 20 seconds left. Brown dribbled up the court, came off a screen by Hill and pulled up for a three. But Robertson switched off his man, reached out sideways as he leaped in the air and blocked the shot.

        The clock read :06. Xavier looked dead. But the ball bounded back into Brown's hands, and this time there was no one in the way. Falling backward, he heaved up a prayer at the buzzer. The ball rimmed around the top of the basket, then dropped through in a swoosh that echoed through the silent gym.

        Twyman groaned. Brown showed the confident grin — he had done it again, torn out the Bearcats' heart with a last-second shot.

        This time, however, Brown's three only tied it — 82-82 — and overtime would be needed.

        By now, other former players had sneaked in the gym to watch. Among them were Muskie Joe Pangrazio and Bearcat Raleigh Wynn, who had fumed at each other since their infamous brawl in overtime of the 1967 Shootout. When they saw each other across the court, old tempers flared.

        Pangrazio charged the court and Wynn came after him, throwing a punch. They proceeded to fight down the sidelines as players tried to break it up, which succeeded only after Pangrazio threw a wooden crutch that he had grabbed from the scorekeeper at Wynn.

        With emotions that much rawer, overtime turned into five of the most kinetic minutes of basketball ever played. The teams kept trading baskets — a Piontek turnaround, a Ron Bonham jumper, a Thomas three, a Robertson three. Only twice in the extra period did anyone miss.

        The energy was palpable in the sweat pouring off Piontek's forearms onto Twyman's shoulders when they banged in the post, and in the steely-eyed look in Robertson's eyes.

        But Robertson's ankle was not as strong as his resolution, and as the overtime wound down to its final minute, the ankle gave out as Robertson drove to the basket. UC looked to be in trouble.

        As Robertson limped off the court, in came sixth man Joe Stiffend, who had played just a few minutes earlier. He turned over the ball on his first possession, then let Thomas drive by him for a pull-up jumper with 22 seconds to play that put Xavier up 98-97.

        Stiffend, however, had something in common with Brown: He, too, had hit a game-winning shot in this series and carried that inner confidence. So when he took a pass from Bonham with six seconds to go, Stiffend calmly let go a 17-foot bomb over Brown's outstretched arms.

        The ball whooshed through the hoop. The buzzer sounded. UC had won 99-98. Brown turned around and looked in Stiffend's eyes, nodding in respect, exchanging the silent esteem only such game winners share.

        The players shook hands, although Bearcats assistant coach Bob Huggins stiffed Xavier assistant Pete Gillen, sending Gillen into a tirade. Still, no one could argue the outcome. This had been as close a game as there ever had been. The score had been settled.

        There were no wild celebrations by the Bearcats, nor any tears from the Muskies. There was no need. All that needed to be said had been said in those frenetic 45 minutes.

        Someone shut off the lights, and the 12 exhausted men walked out the creaky wooden door, back into the cool rain of an early winter's night, fading back into the fog of history.

        A voice tailed off in the distance. “Same time next year?”


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