By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The University of Cincinnati women's basketball team will defend its Conference USA Tournament championship Friday in Memphis, after an upset loss to St. Louis Sunday cost it a share of the C-USA regular season title.
UC (21-6, 11-3 C-USA) received the tournament's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. It plays either No. 7 Southern Miss or No. 10 Houston at 2 p.m. Friday at The Pyramid. Saturday's semifinals are followed by Sunday's 2 p.m. championship in Memphis, Tenn.
UC and Charlotte were tied as C-USA leaders entering Sunday's games, but UC's 69-63 loss at St. Louis erased the Bearcats' chance for their first regular season conference championship since 1999. The Billikens hadn't beaten UC since 1993.
Charlotte defeated Tulane 86-80 for its first-ever C-USA title and secured the No. 1 conference tournament seed.
"I think we need to resuscitate ourselves now. The loss was very disappointing, but we have to get past it," UC coach Laurie Pirtle said.
Consecutive regular season losses to Tulane (62-53) and Charlotte (67-62) in February were equally taxing to UC's conference goals, Pirtle said. The Bearcats rebounded with five straight wins.
UC is still a solid lock in the NCAA Tournament, based on collegerpi.com projections. After Sunday's games, UC was a projected six seed with an RPI of 35.
Should they gain a bid, the Bearcats will have the home-court advantage. UC hosts first and second round NCAA Tournament games at the Shoemaker Center beginning March 23.
The Bearcats leave Wednesday for Tennessee and will await either Houston (15-12, 6-8 C-USA) or Southern Miss (13-14, 6-8). Those teams play at 2 p.m. Thursday.
UC swept both teams at the Shoemaker Center in January.
"It's hard to say what'll happen (between Houston and Southern Miss) with it being a new season. Teams take on a new life and a new mentality, so it's hard to predict," Pirtle said.
Conference success hinges on sophomore center Debbie Merrill, who enters the tournament with 27 straight double-figure scoring games. She leads the Bearcats in scoring (18.4 points) and rebounding (8.3).
C-USA tourney at a glance
Matchup: UC vs. Southern Miss or Houston, 2 p.m. Friday
Where: The Pyramid, Memphis, Tenn.
Semifinals: Saturday, 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. (TV: C-USA TV)
Championship: Sunday, 2 p.m. (TV: ESPN2)
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