NASHVILLE — There was little room for finesse in Sunday’s black-and-blue late-night matchup between Florida State and Cincinnati, two teams that rode physical play to the finals of their respective conference tournaments.
Helmets and shoulder pads would have been appropriate equipment for a game laden with collisions, floor burns and an inadvertent elbow or two. In the end, the sixth-seeded Bearcats survived, 62-56, over third-seeded Florida State in a round-of-32 NCAA tournament game at Bridgestone Arena.
Cincinnati advanced to play second-seeded Ohio State in Thursday’s East Region semifinals in Boston.
The Bearcats advanced to their first Sweet 16 since 2001. And Sunday’s victory underscored the impressive job Coach Mick Cronin has done in keeping the Bearcats on course after their brawl against cross-city rival Xavier on Dec. 10.
Beginning in late February, the Bearcats, a team bred on defense and three-point shooting, began to surge, beating Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown and Syracuse. And on Sunday, they beat the ACC tournament champions whose defense has consistently ranked among the nation’s best in recent years. All season, the Bearcats have made a habit of winning close games, and Sunday was no different.
Both teams, as expected, played well enough defensively to win the game. But the game’s momentum turned on an offensive miscue in the final two minutes.
While bringing the ball upcourt, Florida State’s Luke Loucks threw a pass to his right, but Dion Dixon intercepted and raced in for a dunk that gave Cincinnati a 52-50 lead with 1 minute 30 seconds to play. Cincinnati guard Cashmere Wright then made a 14-foot jump shot to put the Bearcats up four points with 55 seconds remaining.
Throughout the game, Florida State’s offense was bolstered by the resurgent play of Michael Snaer, the team’s leading scorer who had been held without a point in the first-round victory over St. Bonaventure. On Sunday, Snaer made his first two shots — both three-pointers. But he made his biggest impact in the first half, not when the Bearcats made their second-half run.
Dixon, who made just 3 of 10 field goal attempts in the first half, made a high-arcing three-pointer from the top of the circle to tie the score at 32 with 14:30 to play. Dixon turned and emphatically pumped his first afterward, knowing that baskets were tough to come by against Florida State’s towering defensive frontline.
Two of Dixon’s three field goals in the first half came by way of dunks in transition. His second one lifted Cincinnati to a brief 16-14 advantage.
Florida State’s Deividas Dulkys sank a three-pointer in transition to break an 18-all game. Soon after, Dulkys jumped into the passing lane, stole the ball and raced to the other end for a dunk that gave the Seminoles a five-point lead.