Sunday, December 05, 1999

Women's Hometown Shootout today

UC's defense vs. high-scoring XU

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What will they do for an encore? Last year the University of Cincinnati and Xavier women's basketball teams entered the Hometown Shootout as evenly matched as ever — and ended up playing perhaps the best Shootout in history, a 65-61 UC overtime win.

        This season things look a little different — undefeated Xavier is off to its best Division I start, while the young Bearcats are struggling to find their offense. But today's Shootout at 3 p.m. (Channel 64) at Xavier's Schmidt Fieldhouse is still a measuring stick for both teams.

        “It's a pride game,” Xavier coach Melanie Balcomb said. “It's for bragging rights in the city, and it gives us an opportunity to showcase our programs. The positive thing is, it prepares us for league play. Playing in front of a big crowd, with all the added pressure, you can't get that experience every day.”

        Xavier, 5-0 behind four double-figure scorers, has one of its most promising teams since joining Division I 17 years ago and is gaining momentum on the national scene. UC (1-3) is a young team with a three-game losing streak. Its best offensive weapon, 5-foot-10 senior guard Madinah Slaise, has started slow, shooting just 30 percent and averaging 12.7 points. She began the season with a 20-point game, but has been held to 16, 2 and 7 since.

        But Slaise, who averaged nearly 20-points per game last year, is the same star who turned the Shootout into a signature game in 1998, scoring eight of her 25 points as she dominated overtime. This year, teams are designing their defenses to stop her.

        “She's got the bull's-eye on her back,” UC coach Laurie Pirtle said. “Every team is trying to stop her. When great players struggle, you don't say anything to them. They got to be great players on their own. The key is making the other players around you better.”

        Most of those other players are young, like freshman for ward Candice Holley (9.0 points, 4.0 rebounds per game) and sophomore center Laura Wilder, from Ohio high school powerhouse Pickerington. Pirtle expects them to break out soon, and Holley has shown impressive flashes, scoring 17 points in a loss to Michigan and grabbing 11 rebounds in a loss to Dayton.

        Last year, it was Xavier that struggled offensively in the Shootout with star point guard Nikki Kremer out with an injury. Kremer has graduated, but the Musketeers aren't having trouble scoring this year, averaging 74 points per game.

        “The difference in dynamic is that they're good offensively, and we're good defensively,” Pirtle said. “We're really, really going to have to guard them tough.”

        Muskies center Taru Tuukkanen, a 6-3 junior from Finland, averages a team-high 16.4 points and 6.8 rebounds. With 16 seconds to play in regulation of last year's Shootout, Tuukkanen nailed a 3-pointer to send it to overtime.

        Junior guard Nicole Levandusky averages 16.4 and junior forward Jen Phillips averages 12 points and 4.8 rebounds. Balcomb isn't surprised by the balance.

        “We've always been a confident bunch. I recruit shooters,” Balcomb said. “I also give everyone the green light, as long as they've practiced a shot in practice. Everyone's involved on any given night. When they miss shots, I tell them to keep shooting. That breeds confidence.”

        Freshman Amy Waugh has stepped in nicely for Kremer at the point, averaging 12.2 points, four rebounds and five assists.

        “She's stepped up quicker than we expected,” Balcomb said. “Physically, she has all the skills. What we didn't know was how long it would take her to learn the system. I knew whoever gained the confidence and respect of her teammates would be our point guard, and she did that the first week. I had upperclassmen coming to me saying, "This kid can play.”'

        The Bearcats may not be hitting offensively, but they'll be as tough a defensive team as Xavier has seen.

        “They way they're playing defense, and the way they played us last year, we're going to have to execute the fundamentals to be able to score,” Balcomb said.

        UC has won 15 of the 21 meetings, including four of the last five.


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- Women's Hometown Shootout today