Monday, March 19, 2012 | 1:05 p.m.
• Betting line via Wynn Las Vegas: Florida State -2, does not cover.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dion Dixon and the Cincinnati Bearcats are making it an Ohio party in the NCAA tournament, giving the Buckeye State four teams in the final 16.
Next up, the sixth-seeded Bearcats play Ohio State for only the second time since beating the Buckeyes in 1961 and 1962 for back-to-back national championships.
Dixon stole the ball and dunked to put Cincinnati ahead for good with 1:32 left, and the Bearcats edged No. 3 seed Florida State 62-56 Sunday night to reach their first regional semifinal in the NCAA tournament since 2001.
Cincinnati (26-10) will play No. 2 seed Ohio State in Boston on Thursday night in the East Regional, joining Xavier and Ohio in the second weekend. The Bearcats and Ohio State last played on Dec. 16, 2006, when Ohio State won 72-50 in Indianapolis in the Wooden Tradition. That was the only time the former state rivals have played since Cincinnati's championship game wins.
"It's an accomplishment for us considering everything we've been through all year," Dixon said. "To make it to the Sweet 16 is just unreal."
It's a game few could have pictured for Cincinnati back in December after trash talking and a brawl capped a 76-53 loss to Xavier that led to suspensions. The Bearcats now have won five of six, reaching their first Big East tournament championship game as well.
"We were so far from the NCAA tournament we couldn't see it with binoculars," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "These guys, they're prepared to play must-win games because we've been playing them since Dec. 13 at Wright State."
Sean Kilpatrick scored 18 points and Dixon finished with 15. Yancy Gates had 10 and JaQuon Parker grabbed 11 rebounds.
Florida State (25-10) had its six-game winning streak snapped. The Seminoles won their first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title this season are heading home short of the NCAA regional semifinal they reached a year ago.
"As physical as it was, it got to the point where I mean, I think the refs had to not call a lot of things," Florida State senior Bernard James said. "I don't think we handled that too well, me in particular. I shot a much lower percentage than I normally shoot, especially point-blank jump hooks and layups."
Luke Loucks led the Seminoles with 14 points. James and Michael Snaer both scored 11.
"They did the little things that gave them the edge to give them the opportunity to win this game," coach Leonard Hamilton said.
This game featured 19 lead changes and 11 ties, and neither team led by more than three in the second half until the Bearcats scored seven straight points. Kilpatrick hit a free throw to tie it at 50, then Dixon stole the ball on a careless pass from Loucks in front of the Cincinnati bench as Florida State tried to bring the ball up court. Dixon took off and slammed down a dunk to give Cincinnati the lead.
"I got a steal, it was just me and the basket," Dixon said. "I saw nobody else, and I went up and dunked it. It kind of sparked us a little bit."
Cronin called that the play of the game, with the Bearcats needing every steal possible to combat Florida State's size in the paint.
"That was a tremendous play on his part, reading the pass and tremendous anticipation," Cronin said.
Cashmere Wright hit a jumper, and Gates added two free throws for a 56-50 lead with 35.3 seconds left. The Bearcats sealed it by hitting all eight free throws in the final 35.3 seconds.
"After Dion got that dunk, we knew the game would come down to making free throws, so our focus got onto defense and free throws. So I think that enabled us to step up to the line and knock them down," Gates said.
The Seminoles led 29-28 at halftime and were up by five in the first half. But a Florida State team that came into the NCAA tournament sixth in Division I holding opponents to 38.1 percent shooting couldn't stop Cincinnati in the second half. The Bearcats hit 11 of 21 (52.4 percent) overall and 12 of 13 at the free throw line. Cincinnati had a big edge at the line (19 of 23) overall compared to Florida State (12 of 15).
Florida State had trouble holding onto the ball, too, with 13 of its 17 turnovers coming on steals by Cincinnati. The Bearcats turned those into 19 points.
Snaer said it was shocking how much the Seminoles struggled to hang onto the ball because the coaches warned them about how Cincinnati likes to pressure and go for steals. They just weren't ready for what they encountered on the court.
"Some guys didn't know how to handle it, and they got away with some strips," Snaer said. "We just weren't concentrating and protecting the ball the way we should have."
Cincinnati said before the game that Florida State would fit right in the Big East with its stingy defense, and this game looked just like a conference battle.
Florida State last led 50-49 on a pair of free throws by Loucks with 2:09 left after Gates' fourth personal foul of the game. That's when the Bearcats took over.
The first half gave a glimpse of what the final 20 minutes would be.
Snaer hit back-to-back 3s within the first 3 minutes after the Seminoles' leading scorer was shut out in their opening win over St. Bonaventure. Snaer missed on a couple of airballs, but he still had nine points by halftime.
Florida State led 26-25 at the break largely thanks to a quick six points keyed by senior Deividas Dulkys. The guard from Lithuania hit a 3-pointer, then had a pair of steals.