Here are a few keys to how the Bearcats "handled" the South Florida Bulls, ending their three-game skid.
Well, coach has referred to this group as the Fab Five all season long, but this was ridiculous. Up four points with just over 8 seconds to play, veteran guard Belva May knocks the ball free from the nation's leading scorer, Jessica Dickson, dives on the floor and calls a timeout - THE CATS WERE OUT OF TIMEOUTS!. As the entire crowd held their collective breathes, Dickinson calmly knocked down two technical free throws to cut the lead to two, but then narrowly missed a last second three that would have won the game for the Bulls, and pushed the UC Big East/overall losing streak to four.
Keys to the Game:
Closing Out A Team: As they have displayed all season long, this youthful Bearcat team has shown an inability to close out games and put together a forty-minute effort. While I am kind to blame this loss on youth, being as that this team does play three upperclassmen (two seniors) in their starting lineup, this team simply seems to lack the knack to put teams away or stay positive for two halves. As we have seen in games against Fordham, Indiana, and now yesterday, the Bearcats struggle to control the momentum of a game after they seem to get a head. They allow emotion and the crowd to overwhelm them at times. As Coach Laurie Pirtle said after the game, "with a young team it becomes a game of runs". With this young Bearkitten squad this is most definitely the case. At home, this team has a way of putting together stretches midway through the second period that make you think they will blowout a team. However, then as the just are about to put their foot on their opponents throat, they stop playing, get too up for the win and seem to lose their focus. Against the likes of Rutgers, UConn and Providence, the first three Big East games/losses for the 'Cats, the played well for one half, but then just lull their way through the rest of the game. I do not know if it is a lack of adjustments being made, the inability of a youthful team to step-up their game down the stretch, or just a case of other teams coming to play a bit harder then UC, but something needs to change.
Turnovers: UC turns the ball over entirely too much. The turned the ball over 28 times against a solid, not great, South Florida team that they should have put away early based on shooting numbers alone. The Bearcats, as they have done all season, will have one major area of their game falter, which disables their ability to capitalize on all the good things the team was doing. The Bearcats shot better than fifty-percent from the floor, and were efficient from both the charity stripe and from deep, but they allowed a South Florida team to capitalize on one of their strengths – hustle points. This South Florida team, which narrowly lost to quality opponents Rutgers and Pittsburgh, had a field day at living off UC miscues. USF scored 30 points off UC turnovers, many of which led to fast break points. These UC mishaps helped lead to the running of the Bulls, as the ‘Cats were unable to get back in transition and allowed 20 fast break points Granted, on this day the ‘Cats were without the services of Treasure Humphries (foul trouble) and Shelly Bellman (injury) for stretches during the game, taking away two of their primary ballhandlers. However, stupid passes into the post against a tough zone, poorly read passing lanes, overzealous actions on the offensive end, and just overall sloppy play lead to UC nearly throwing this one away (pardon the play on words).
Defensive Rebounding: This Bearcat team is arguably one of the top rebounding teams in the nation at times. They are able to play with, or top, many of the biggest, toughest interior teams in the land with their length and tenacity. However, at certain times this Bearcat team just looks vulnerable against many of the more athletic, crashing style teams, allowing entirely too many second chance opportunities. UC allowed 18 offensive rebounds to the likes of Dickson (4), Nalani Miller (6), and Rachael Grace (4). Though similar in size to the Bulls (if not a little longer with Anne Stephens standing 6-4 in the middle), the ‘Cats length was undermined by poor positioning and simply being outworked. Out of a zone defense, UC was unable to get a body on the correct person at times, leading to easy rebounds for the fleet-footed Bulls. It most be noted that USF missed 46 shots, but allowing better than 40-percent of shots not made to be rebounded by the shooters is a ridiculously high percentage.
Shooting: While it is often overlooked because of the ‘Cats ability to run-and-gun, and often is overshadowed by the many miscues on offense, UC has seemed to get into a shooting hot streak in recent weeks. Against USF, UC shoot fifty-percent from the floor, including 3-of-8 from deep. While 3-of-8 does not sound like much to write home about, early in the season three long-distance attempts by the ‘Cats would not be a surprising total for an entire game. After getting off shooting a sluggishly-low percentage from the outside early this season, relying mostly on transition buckets, scoring in the paint, and free throws to get by opponents, the Bearcats have come alive from the outside. Collecting on season-highs from the outside against UConn, the Cats have started to pick up their game from distance. Leading the way in the shooting display has been Micah Harvey, who recently returned to the lineup. Ironically, Harvey has struggled with her shot during her tenure at Cincinnati, but suffering a knee injury, limiting her mobility and ability to penetrate the lane, has seemingly made her a much for competent outside set-shooter. Helping Harvey from range has been Karen Twehues, who has eclipsed certain shooting milestones in recent games. Twehues, who struggled during the early portion of the season with both her shot and confidence, finding little time on the floor, she is beginning to return to form as one of the top frontcourt sharpshooters in the nation. In addition, Humphries and Bellman, who have relied primarily on their speed and strength in the lane to score points, have seem their outside strokes come to life in recent weeks.
Interior Play: While Anne struggled to just six points against the Bulls, the bench production of Jill Stephens, her sister, helped pick up the load for UC. Jill Stephens scored 22 points off the bench for the Bearcats and pulled down nine rebounds in her 30 minutes of work. Outplaying her older sister for much of the early part of this season, Jill Stephens slipped into a several weeklong funk. With Anne Stephens play picking up over the pervious six games, averaging over 15 points per contest, and the steady play of fellow freshman Michelle Jones off the bench, Jill Stephens saw her starting role given away before the Providence game. Jill Stephens, who has not adapted well to her lightly used role off the pine, exploded against a lanky USF frontcourt. Perhaps ironically, it was the play of Jill Stephens and Jones that helped put Cincinnati over the top. Jones added 18 points, including several big baskets late in the game and during UC's run in the middle of the second period to push the lead to 13, and six rebounds on the night. While, it has been the backcourt that has received most of the publicity to this point in the season, it has been the consistent yeomen-like work ethic of the steady three-person rotation of the Stephens sisters and Jones has really sparked the ‘Cats all season on both the offensive and defensive end – just not on the defensive glass at times.
Team Defense: I know it is hard to say that a team played great defense when you allow 87 points, including 47 in the second half while allowing a team to come back from a 13 point defense, in this case it may be valid. Cincinnati, at times, had a great defensive scheme against an undermanned USF roster. Applying the appropriate full-court zone at times, forcing turnovers when UC needed a pick-me-up and forcing the Bulls into low-percentage shots, UC really seem to bring their "A" game to the table for much of the contest. While Dickson scored 30 points on the night, it must be noted that she came into the game as the nation's leading, averaging better than 25 points per contest. UC knew she was going to get her shots; it was simply a matter of making those shots difficult when she took them. UC held Dickson to 9-of-29 shooting (2-of-11 from three), and forced seven turnovers of the potential All-American candidate. In addition, UC held this three-point bombing team to just four made attempts from deep on the contest, despite putting up 20 attempts from behind the arc. USF only shot 39.5 percent for the game and was forced into 20 turnovers of their own. If it were not for an outstanding night at the charity stripe by USF, this game would have been no contest. The Bulls connected on 23-of-30 from the free throw line, but UC made them work for those "free points". Every basket was challenged for the most part.
Players Stepping Up When Called Upon: If you would have asked me coming into the game if UC had a shot to win this game if the trio of Bellman, Humphries and Anne Stephens could combine for 17 points and 11 turnovers in a collective 54 minutes of actions I would have said, "No, probably not." However, boy was I wrong. With only Bellman finishing among the top-five scorers (8) for UC of the trio, and only after a pair of late free throws, the Bearcats needed their entire team to step up…and they did! UC saw three of its three of its four leading scorers come from the bench. Jill Stephens (22), May (10) and Kayla Roudebush joined starter Jones (18) as UC's only double-digit scorers. In total, UC saw 47 of their 89 points (the highest total since 2003) come from the bench. Players like those three, along with Harvey (7), helped keep the Bearcats ship afloat while the rest of the team was struggling with foul or injury trouble. It is a very positive sign that this young team has shown the ability to step up when called upon, not letting the early "niches" they have seemed to work their way into slow them down. Roudebush, who played well against XU in UC's blowout loss to their crosstown foe, has handled moving to the bench for Harvey with class and dignity, but has also thrived since adopting the roll. May, who never knows how many minutes, if any, she will play in a game, came through in the clutch – even though the last-second dramatics nearly left coach speechless.