The Bearcats were one of the hottest teams coming into the NCAA Tournament. They had won 5 of their last 6 regular season games and made it to the Big East Championship. While they fell short against the equally hot Louisville Cardinals, UC had knocked of Georgetown and the second best team in the country the Syracuse Orange en route to that matchup. Then, in the opening round of the Big Dance, Cincinnati manhandled an inexperienced Texas squad. They were up 31 – 17 at halftime and wound up beating Texas 65 – 59.
But their toughest test was yet to come. In the 2nd round (technically 3rd but I refuse to conform to the new NCAA Tourney format), Cincinnati was pitted to face Florida State. The Seminoles were coming off an ACC Tournament championship in which they knocked off perennial powers Duke and UNC in succession. They had also taken care of business against their opening ground opponent the A-10 Tournament champs St. Bonaventure*. It’s safe to say FSU was equally as on fire.
*Fun fact! St. Bonaventure is the patron saint of bowel movements. You can’t unknow that now.
The game was grudge match. Florida State is known for playing extremely big in 3-2 sets with Xavier Gibson and Bernard James clogging the middle. But Mick Cronin didn’t counter by going big himself. He continued to go with what worked for the Bearcats since mid-December of the previous year; the 4-guard lineup. Obviously Yancy Gates was UC’s lone post-player most of the time and Mick did bring in Justin Jackson and Cheikh Mbodj at times but in general it was 6’3″ Jaquon Parker asked to man up inside. You would think a guard v. forward matchup would automatically favor the forward. But Parker wound up leading both teams with 11 rebounds and only made the paint all the more of a battle ground.
In a sense, despite playing two different styles both teams emphasized tough defense and forcing the opponent to work for every point they got. The game was one of the closest Cincinnati had played all season. For the first 39 minutes of the game, neither team led by more than 5 points and the Bearcats were down just 1 at halftime. This was clearly one of the most evenly matched games of the entire NCAA Tournament but something had to give. That something came on an ill-advised pass by Luke Loucks which Dion Dixon quickly jumped and slammed home.
That dunk would put Cincinnati up just 52 – 50 but the Bearcats would go on to outscore the Seminoles 10 – 6 over the final minute of play and win 62 – 56. The turning point that open the flood gates? I dare say, it was Dion Dixon’s quick play. Florida State looked out of sorts after his dunk and conversely Cincinnati had an extra pep in their step. The Seminoles ensuing would be two missed three-pointers, a turnover, and a foul. It would appear as if the pressure of such a close game was getting to them and Dixon’s dunk was the breaking point.