Sunday, March 23, 2003

UC faces an uphill battle at home

Bearcats play a team just like them: Arkansas

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

UC's Debbie Merrill during practice at the Shoemaker Center.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
The University of Cincinnati women's basketball team will dress in its own locker room, sit on its own bench and play on its home court today in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Shoemaker Center.

Yet it still might be an underdog.

The 10th-seeded Bearcats (23-7, 11-3 Conference USA) host No. 7 Arkansas (21-10, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) at 2:45 p.m. in one of three tournament instances where the host team plays a higher-seeded opponent.

Oklahoma, a 10 seed, hosts No. 7 George Washington in Norman, Okla., on Sunday. Fifth-seed Boston College defeated No. 12 Old Dominion 73-72 Saturday in Norfolk, Va.

"We'll know when we're out there how we'll respond. (Home court advantage) can make you try too hard, or it can make you look really sloppy and lethargic, or it could really energize you," UC coach Laurie Pirtle said.

The Bearcats were 15-1 at the Shoe this season, tying last year's best-ever mark. Since 1989, they've been 129-67 (.658) at home.

Lady Razorbacks coach Gary Blair has never lost an opening-round NCAA Tournament game. But Arkansas has lost eight of its 10 games on the road - on opponents' courts and neutral sites.

Arkansas, ranked No. 24 in the March 17 Associated Press poll and No. 21 in the USA Today/ESPN poll, has some stunning defeats in its repertoire, including then-No. 13 South Carolina and then-No. 2 Louisiana State University.

The Lady Razorbacks have played before crowds of 11,000 twice - both before top-tier SEC foes (LSU and Tennessee). UC averages 1,258 fans in home games; 3,000 all-session tickets had been sold by Saturday afternoon.

"The crowd might bother (UC) more than us because they're not used to it," Blair said.

Junior forward Shameka Christon - dubbed "The Diamond of Arkansas" for her production under pressure - leads Arkansas with 15.3 points and 6.3 assists a game. Her career average is 14.1 points a game, but she scores 18.0 points in televised games and 23.1 points when playing before crowds of more than 10,000.

The team bearing the greatest resemblance to Arkansas that UC has seen this season is, well, UC.

"We're very much amoeba teams, which means we look at the other team and figure out how to win the game," Pirtle said.

Similar defenses, up-tempo offenses and offensive sets will make the game interesting. Arkansas' dominant guard play will counter UC's balanced attack, from point guard K.B. Sharp and guard Valerie King to 6-3 center Debbie Merrill.

Blair's biggest concern is Sharp.

"She's a point guard with size that can beat you with penetration," Blair said. And, "She can beat you between the ears."



UC vs. Arkansas

Tipoff: About 2:45 today, Shoemaker Center (13,176).

Record: UC 23-7, Arkansas 21-10.


Series: First meeting.


Carolyn AlexanderSr.5-1010.8
Brittani Young Jr.5-73.9
Debbie MerrillSo.6-318.1
Valerie King Jr.5-1016.5
K.B. Sharp Sr.5-913.9
Coach: Laurie Pirtle (254-239, 17th season; 337-225, 20th overall).


Shameka ChristonJr.6-115.6
India Lewis Sr.5-513.6
Dana CherrySr.5-811.8
Lakishia HarperSr.5-105.1
Ruby VadenFr.6-37.2
Coach: Gary Blair (176-109, 10th season; 386-152, 18th overall).


.425Opp. FG%.407
.319Opp. 3-pt.%.333
60.0Opp. PPG60.7
+4.5Reb. margin+0.6
+3.6Turn. margin+2.7

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