The University of Cincinnati women's basketball team (10-1) will look to extend its winning streak to eight as they get their first taste of big time Big East living tonight, as the Bearcats meet #8-ranked Rutgers tonight at Fifth Third Arena.
Tuesday's game will be UC's first conference contest as a member of the BIG
EAST. UC is 1-2 in its inaugural games in a new conference (Metro (1981-82 to
1990-91), the Great Midwest (1991-92 to 1994-95) and Conference USA (1995-96 to
2004-05)) and this is the first one to be at home. The Bearcats are also 8-14
all-time in conference openers.
Led by the play of Cappie Pondexter, the reigning Big East Player of the Week, the Scarlet Knights (9-1) are coming off a topnotch victory of #19 ranked Texas. In the contest Pondexter, was up to her usual heroics, leading the way with 22 points and five assists against a Texas squad, but it was in the inspired play of Rutgers reserve Matee Ajavon that kept the Knights in the hunt with 17 points of her own. The duo of Pondexter and Ajavon, who has been coming off the bench thanks to a stress fracture suffered this summer, scored 18 of the 19 points during a game-clinching 19-4 run.
The win over Texas, a team that has lost to Duke (84-70) and top-ranked Tennessee (102-61) earlier this month, was the make-up game for a team that struggled during the team's only loss of the season to a then-unranked Mississippi State (67-57) two weeks ago.
For Rutgers, this will be their second game against a Big East foe this season. The Scarlet Knights handled an average Providence team, holding the Friars to 45 points in the 58-45 victory.
While the sixth victory of a season-opening eight-game win streak was marked as a win in the rankings, Rutgers' head coach felt that her team's play in that contest, as well as at points all season long, would not be good enough to "W's" against the big time opponents remaining on their schedule.
Vivian Stringer, who saw her team dash out to an 8-0 start before being slowed by MSU, possibly prognosticated her team's lackluster showing, as she felt her team just wasn't playing inspired basketball.
"I'm disappointed. We're winning but not executing," Stringer said. "This was not a game for slow thinkers and slow movers and we had a lot of slow movers," said Stringer about her team's victory over the sub-500 Friars. "The thing that turned it around wasn't our man-to-man but a half-court press that gave them a different look and a different face."
Amazingly, for those select few in the know about Cincinnati women's basketball, the same could very well be said about the early play of the Bearcats early on this season. Head Coach Laurie Pirtle almost echoed the comments of Stringer verbatim after UC's poor showing against crosstown rival Xavier ( received four votes this week's ESPN/USA today top-25 poll), a game in which the Bearcats were not only out executed and out played, but seemingly outworked as well.
For both coaches their lone losses on the season served as much needed wake-up calls, especially for Pirtle's young squad that utilizes the extended play of five freshman, including as many as four in the lineup at any given time (two starters). The Bearcat roster features five freshmen -- Shelley Bellman, Michelle Jones, Angel Morgan, Kahla Roudebush and Jill Stephens -- who make up what was ranked as the 10th best recruiting class in 2005 by the All-Star Girls Report. T
The Fab-Five, as Pirtle has called them, has made an immediate impact on a
rebuilding UC squad, accounting for 49 percent of UC's points and rebounds.
Both teams have seen their teams "evolve" throughout the early portion of the season. While UC is just now beginning to see its rotation fall into order with the return of injured point guard/leader Micah Harvey, the Scarlet Knights have also used 10 different starting lineups to this juncture in the 2005-06 season.
While it is usually the Bearcats that have used the "youth" card to their advantage, for perhaps the first time this season their opponent could possibly match UC in the inexperience department. While both teams start a pair of seniors, Rutgers plans to start two juniors and a freshman in their lineup.
However, while Rutgers has had to finagle their way to victories at
times this season, seemingly stealing victories every now and then due to
inexperience and a lack of continuity on the court, this band of "thieves" is
led by one of the best in the business. Pondexter, who is averaging 21.3 points,
3.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, was the preseason Big East Player of the
Year, and is a legitimate candidate for National Player of the Year honors.
Matching up against the superstar when UC decides to run man-to-man will be Bearcat leading scorer Treasure Humphries. While not receiving the accolades of the Scarlet Knight's lead guard, Humphries has seen herself explode onto the scene this season, averaging 16 points and better than three assists/rebounds per contest. Suffering a season-shortening knee injury last season, Humphries' greatest asset, her speed, has returned to her, allowing her quick hands (3.18 steals per game)to mesh with her breakaway speed to lead to many uncontested fastbreak buckets for the junior combo guard from Canton.
While the Pondexter-Humphries match up will be the obvious one to keep an eye on, being they are the best player for each respective team, it may be the play of the frontcourt that plays a great impact in tonight's outcome.
While both teams generally subscribe to a more up-tempo, athletic style of play, the bangers in the low post will likely determine the ultimate success or failure of tonight's contest. The Bearcats are nationally ranked as one of the top rebounding clubs in college basketball. The Bearcats have dominated the rebounding category this year, averaging a +13.1 margin. UC has won the rebounding battle in every game except Indiana and posted a double-digit margin in eight of 11 games.
The play of the Stephens sisters (Jill (freshman) and Anne (senior)) and Michelle Jones (off the bench) in the pivot will be key in stopping Rutgers leading interior player Kia Vaughn, the 6-4 freshman center from the Bronx. The long, athletic Vaughn averages nearly seven rebounds per game.
Rebounding for Cincinnati is more than just purely defensive, shutting down other team's scoring opportunities. In fact, in many ways it may be their greatest source of consistent offense. Cincinnati, who has 167 offensive rebounds to their opponents' 111, averages 14.6 second chance points per game and allowing just 8.4.
In addition, defensive rebounding is a key way for UC to get their run-and-gun style in motion. The three-step process of rebound-outlet-break has led to many scoring opportunities and trips to the free-throw stripe for the Bearcats this season, especially for Humphries and freshman wing guard Bellman, who leads the team in rebounding (6.8) and sees most of her 9.9 points per game (second on the team) come in transition.
One of the most significant factors in tonight's contest may be the potential for Rutgers may be the fact they play at East Lansing this weekend in front of a national television audience (CBS). While no team likes to admit to "looking past" a potential opponent, especially one of the apparent caliber of this UC squad (received one vote in the top-25 AP poll), the Scarlet Knights will look to desperately avoid another loss to a top-tier team as they take on #13-ranked Michigan State.
However, on the other hand, Rutgers, much like Cincinnati in their post-Xavier thrashing of Eastern Illinois (82-49), may look to use the Bearcats to exhibit to the college basketball the prowess and ability the Scarlet Knight's posses. Ironically, this could be the best or worst thing for the Bearcats. Riding high on their six game winning streak, it is paramount UC avoids any complacency in tonight's showing - thinking then they are better than they really are - with an inspired Rutgers squad in pursuit of a confidence-builder. Ironically, that "out for blood" mentality of the Scarlet Knight's could prove to be their downfall. The Scarlet Knights and Coach Vivian must avoid getting too high for tonight's contest, letting their emotions to get the better of them.