Cincinnati finds the right sort of toughness

NEW YORK – The dialogue and the punches have been dissected now to almost every syllable and twitch. Everyone knows exactly what happened in the Dec. 10 brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier, knows every inappropriate word, every horrible action.

What everyone forgets: Xavier was right about one thing.

Remember, it all started because the Musketeers belittled the Bearcats for their lack of toughness, and while Cincinnati might have showed its street grit in the late-game melee, it showed its lack of basketball fortitude in the 23-point loss.

“We were soft,’’ Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “We were soft early.’’

In perhaps the strangest and most ironic twist in this twisted basketball season, on the same day the Bearcats were criticized for being too hard and played too soft, Cincinnati found the perfect medium.

The Bearcats grew up after that game and grew into a team that has gone from losing to Presbyterian at home to beating Syracuse in the Big East tournament semifinal, 71-68.

It is nothing less than an astounding turnaround, a morality play lived large on the hardwood.

Plenty of people wrote Cincinnati off early; plenty more were disgusted with the Bearcats after the brawl.

And now? Now they’re winning converts by the day.

Cincinnati did not beat Syracuse because it hit 8 of 10 3-pointers in the first half, though that certainly helped.

The Bearcats won because they outplayed a team that had but one stain on their résumé.

“Where we come from, we play to win,’’ Cronin said. “We’re not in it for the old college try. When this tournament starts next week, we’re quietly going to try and win it. We don’t let people outside our locker room define who we are as people or as a team. We try to define ourselves and make sure we’re giving our best effort. That’s what greatness is.’’

Syracuse defined the word for the entirety of this Big East season, rolling through the regular season with just one loss, and that with an asterisk, as the Orange played without Fab Melo.

Syracuse came to Madison Square Garden with its orange army, expecting a coronation.

Instead, the Orange head back home empty-handed.

There is no way to sugarcoat it. Syracuse did not play well. A team that rarely turns the ball over coughed it up 15 times, stymied surprisingly by Cincinnati’s zone.

Seniors Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine were ineffective, their zone even less so.

The Bearcats meticulously and carefully broke it down, dishing out 17 assists on 25 made baskets. Only a last-minute dash thanks to a full-court press even made this game close.

Instead of their first Big East crown since assistant coach Gerry McNamara’s epic run to the title, the Orange leave digging for a silver lining, insisting they will learn more from the loss than maybe all of their 31 wins combined.

“Look, we want to win the Big East, we want to win every game we play in,’’ Jardine said. “But we could have won the Big East and lost next week and everyone would have forgotten about it. If we lose in the NCAA tournament, nobody would remember if we had won the Big East tournament. That’s the truth.’’

Of course if you’re in the Big East tournament, you view its worth a little differently and the Bearcats are salivating at the chance to claim their first league title of any kind since 2004, when they were Conference USA champs.

“I remember when I came here, I just thought how much I’d love to have a chance to play in that championship game,’’ Yancy Gates said.

Gates, the principal offender in that brawl with Xavier, arrived on campus in the lean years, and though he helped take the Bearcats back to the NCAA tournament a year ago, his senior season appeared headed for disaster.

Before the fight, he was as tentative as his teammates. Cronin would walk into practice and Gates would groan, knowing what was coming.

“I’d be like, ‘Man, I wish he’d just stay home or let one of his assistants run practice,'’’ Gates said.

That’s because Cronin was trying to conjure up something that only the Bearcats could find in themselves -- how to be tough. It took a toll on everybody. The players were demoralized, Cronin exhausted.

“This hasn’t been an easy year coaching,’’ Cronin said. “I’d tell them, ‘C’mon guys, I can’t do this every day. I want to go home and spend time with my daughter.’ They didn’t believe in themselves.’’

And then somewhere after Xavier called them out, humiliated them on the court, and their coach called them out in a postgame press conference, things changed.

The Bearcats won 10 of their next 11 and came to New York having won seven of their final nine.

Against Syracuse, UC sprinted out to a stunning 17-point lead, the Big East leader in 3-pointers made putting on nothing less than a shooting clinic early.

In between the horrible day in early December and this week, the narrative on Cincinnati has changed entirely. After its double-overtime win against Georgetown, a comeback from 11 points down, the Bearcats were lauded for their pluck, grit and yes, their character.

“We heard people saying all of that about us on television,’’ Gates said. “That’s the kind of team we’ve become.’’