Thursday, March 14, 2002

UC women have hard road ahead

By Gary Estwick
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The University of Cincinnati women's basketball has had a seemingly easy path to its first NCAA Tournament bid in three seasons.

        The Bearcats have won 13 straight games, a school record. They won the Conference USA Tournament. And they are ranked No. 19 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 Poll, the Bearcats' highest-ever ranking.

        But it's only going to get harder as UC tries to win its first-ever NCAA Tournament game.

        How about making a run through the field of 64 teams, circa Xavier 2001? Even harder.

        “They've got the dreaded No. 6 seed,” said Nancy Lieberman, a women's basketball analyst for ESPN. “They're going to continue to play tough teams. And as you move up, it's going to get tougher.”

        This is where the Connecticuts and Tennessees of college basketball reserve seats on the bench every March.

        UC should be challenged in every game.

        The Bearcats will play No. 11 seed St. Peter's Saturday at the University of South Carolina's Frank McGuire Arena. Tipoff is at 6:30 p.m.

        “We'll really focus on that first one,” coach Laurie Pirtle said. “You can't get anywhere if you don't get past that first game. You can think about that Sweet 16 all you want. You've still got to win the first game.”

        If UC (26-4) beats St. Peter's (25-5) — and Lieberman said the Bearcats should — UC can look forward to a true road game Monday night if No. 3 South Carolina defeats No. 14 Liberty.

        OK, so what if the Bearcats pull off an upset on the road? (If they do, by the way, they will set a school record for wins in a single season.)

        It could also mean Sheila Lambert and No. 2 Baylor.

        Or how about Alana Beard and No. 1 Duke?

        And there's always Stacy Stephens and No. 4 Texas.

        “Everything is about matchups,” Lieberman said. “If you don't have the horses, you're not going to go too far.”

        Pirtle does have that. Sophomore Valerie King leads the team in scoring (19.9) and is the nation's top free-throw shooter at 91.3 percent. Freshman Debbie Merrill is second in scoring (14.8) and leads the team in rebounding (7.7).

        NCAA Tournament experience, though, is one of the UC's weaknesses. Only senior forward Laura Wilder has played in the tournament, and that was her freshman year in 1999.

        A lack of experience didn't stop the Bearcats from winning the C-USA Tournament to earn an automatic bid.

        Pirtle said she has seen players new to the big games freeze up as gametime approaches.

        “Every once in a while you see it,” she said.

        They hear the crowd roar. Some yell for them. Others against them. Cameras flash. Music blares.

        “That's what tournament experience is about,” Pirtle said.

        Pirtle said playing without NCAA Tournament experience is like trying to get a job without the proper experience. If you had the experience, you wouldn't need the job in the first place.

        But you don't.

        Sure, you've been to the Women's NIT before. But that was like competing in the loser's bracket at a Hoop-It-Up tournament compared with this.

        “Now, if you lose, it's over,” said junior guard K.B. Sharp. “And we don't want that. We want to go as far as we can go.”

        Pirtle said she can curtail a lot of pregame nervousness by preparing her team.

        “I think it's something you have to monitor day to day to see,” she said. “Working on the mental aspect. There's not anything a coach can do to avoid it.”

        The Bearcats won't tinker with their overall offense as they prepare for St. Peter's. UC will add a few offensive and defensive schemes to make their opponent's scouting job difficult.

        “Everybody's got the same goal to win some games,” Wilder said. “But our coaches are going to give us a great game plan.”

        Whether the game plan covers one game or more is up to the players.

UC women get practice push from men

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