Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Big game, big stakes for UC, Charlotte

Both trying to hold C-USA division lead

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Charlotte students began camping out around noon Saturday for tickets to tonight's showdown against the University of Cincinnati. By Sunday night, there were 65 tents set up; the ticket office did not open until 8a.m. Monday.

        The game, needless to say, is sold out.

        It's a big event on campus, not to mention for the 49ers themselves. Charlotte (14-6) is trying to build an NCAA Tournament resume, and a victory over the sixth-ranked team in the country would sure look good to the selection committee. Barring a Conference USA tournament title, Charlotte probably would be fourth in line among league teams to receive NCAA bids, behind UC, Marquette and Memphis.

        Cincinnati is coming off its second loss of the season — Saturday at Marquette — and first since Nov.16.

        There is a sense of urgency for both teams.

        “We've just got to go take care of our business,” Bearcats coach Bob Huggins said.

        Since losing 71-58 at UC on Jan.8, Charlotte has won seven straight games — its longest streak in three years — by an average of 15.4 points.

        The 49ers have averaged 83.4 points over that stretch and totaled at least 50 second-half points three straight games.

        “We're playing a lot better obviously, but we're not playing against Cincinnati,” Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz said. “We've become a much more consistent team. But the test will come (tonight) to see how much more improved we are than when we were there.”

        Charlotte has become more balanced since its visit to Shoemaker Center, with four starters averaging double-figure scoring. During its winning streak, sophomore guard Demon Brown has averaged 13.1 points and junior forward Curtis Nash 11.7. Reserve forward Butter Johnson is averaging 10 points and 5.4 rebounds in league games.

        UC senior Immanuel McElroy shut down 49ers star Jobey Thomas (19.1 ppg) when the teams previously met.

        Thomas finished with 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting, including 1-of-6 from 3-point range. He scored nine of his points in the final 5 1/2 minutes. While that was happening, Charlotte forward Cam Stephens was collecting 14 points and 16 rebounds. Huggins said that can't happen again. Stephens is averaging 15.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in nine league games.

        Lutz said UC dominated with second shots and transition baskets on Jan.8. Stopping that will be one of Charlotte's main objectives.

        The 49ers, who have won nine of their last 10 games, have also improved defensively. They trying to put more pressure on the basketball and disrupt opposing offenses.

        Charlotte, UC (20-2) and Marquette (19-3) go into tonight's game tied atop the league's American Division at 8-1. The Golden Eagles play host to East Carolina today (8p.m.)

        If the 49ers and Marquette win, Cincinnati will find itself in third place in the division and fourth in C-USA (Memphis is 9-0).

        Not to be forgotten: UC has had its problems in hostile Halton Arena, losing three of its last four games there. The 49ers have won 10 consecutive C-USA games at home.

        All five UC-Charlotte games in Halton have been decided by 10 points or less.

        “The one thing that the Marquette victory does is show that someone can beat Cincinnati, but it doesn't really show that we can,” Lutz said. “We had nothing to do with that game. (But) even though Cincinnati defeated us at Cincinnati, I think our guys believe that we can beat them here.”

        That's, in part, because the crowd of 9,105 is sure to do all it can to make it a miserable night for the Bearcats.

        Of course, that's pretty much the case at most opposing venues.

        “They're all tough places,” Huggins said. “(But) I still haven't found anybody in the crowd who's made a field goal.”


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