Losses are always difficult to handle, especially home loses in one of the top basketball conferences in America. However, Wednesday night's sloppy performance against St. John's (14-3, 4-2), 88-80, got to the Cincinnati women's basketball team (11-5, 1-4) as hard as I have ever seen a loss get to a team.
Coach Laurie Pirtle, who has been the head of the women's basketball program at Cincinnati for the past 10 years, was visibly disappointed in the performance of her players. Noting how St. John's managed to seemingly get all the hustle points, she attacked the "effort" her team put forth on the floor at times during the in conference showdown.
"What really upsets me is that this team got something like 58 points that came off mistakes that we made and never really seemed to correct," said Pirtle. "I really am hesitant to say this, but we just didn't give much of an effort tonight. It pains me to say that, because that is not the way this team normally plays, that is not Cincinnati basketball, but they didn't have any energy the entire game."
After keeping the game tight for most of the first half, something happened (or did not happen) for the ‘Cats that hindered their ability to keep their momentum going. Between roughly the 15-minute mark of the first half and the opening minutes of the second half, UC saw themselves go down by as many as 18 points before making a spirited run to get themselves back in the ball game late in the contest.
Using words like "flat" and phrases such as "a lack of effort" to describe her team's performance, Pirtle's disposition was one of utter discontent with her team. Frustration, a loss for words, and a "snappy" response to questions showed how hard coach was taking the loss.
Pirtle's anger showed up quite clearly on the stat sheet. St. John's forced the Bearcats into 25 turnovers and established 31 points off those turnovers. While a late furry on defense that seemingly pumped new life into the ‘Cats saw them tie the Red Storm in turnovers, and actually take the lead in points off turnovers (40 to 31), the ‘Cats were out hustled and worked for most of the game. St. John's utilized every missed opportunity Cincy gave them. Connecting on 50 points in the paint in the face of a sagging 1-2-2 zone, SJU also got numerous buckets on the row, scoring 14 points on the fast break to Cincinnati's four.
The Red Storm used their lighting quick speed to get up and down the court, leading to numerous trips to the basket and nearly a 60-percent shooting percentage (59.3) for the contest. Pirtle's infamous "hustle points" helped St. John's to five scorers in double figures (Tara Walker led the way with 20), with three of those players finishing with at least 16. To no surprise, every one of those players was efficient from the floor, getting the majority of their buckets from around the basket. Every one of those five knocked down at least fifty-percent of their shots.
Even though her team had a commanding size advantage in their frontcourt, Pirtle's roster was out rebounded by St. John's, 33-29. Two of the top rebounding margin teams in the country, Pirtle understood why her team had difficulties on the glass.
"Even though they aren't all that tall, they do that against everybody. This is nothing new. What gets to me as how little we tried to stop them at times; we showed very little energy on both ends of the floor, but especially on the defensive glass. We didn't hustle and take care of the weak-side, giving them countless opportunities after the miss"
That frustration about her team's effort on the defensive glass is echoed on the stat sheet. Even though they were only forced (and I use that word delicately) into 24 missed shots, St. John's held even with UC on the offensive glass for the entirety of the game. Pirtle's team, who forced St. John's into almost no bad shots, even though this team is a horrid outside shooting team (under thirty-percent from beyond the arc), allowed 10 offense rebounds and 13 second chance points, many of which came off the weak-side. They got just about every "big" rebound they needed. If UC made a run, or were able to make a rare stop, there seemed always to be a Red Storm player there to halt Cincinnati's progression.
Pirtle apparently let into her players know of her disappointment in them post-game in the locker room. While they were most certainly upset at their own play, you could see her players were shaken during the press conference. Almost teary-eyed, senior Micah Harvey and freshman Shelly Bellman shared the frustration of Pirtle toward themselves.
Harvey, the team's veteran point guard and team leader, in part blamed herself for the loss. "I didn't do enough to help my team get over that rough patch," said Harvey, who also led her team on the court with nine assists during a season-high 39 minutes of action. "It is my job to do or say something to get us back in the game, but I couldn't do anything. I couldn't energize my team to get them back in the game. It wasn't like we weren't trying we were just flat out there."
While Harvey's words were unable to spark the desired response from her teammates that she would have liked, the inspired play of Bellman got her teammates into the game for stretches throughout the game, but especially during the second half. Bellman scored a career-high 28 points (previous total was 16), 19 of which came in a second-half effort that saw Bellman put her team on her shoulders and nearly lifted them to victory. Hitting big shot after big shot, Bellman's on the court heroics got UC to within striking distance at four points as late as 4:33 left in the game.
"She got this team energized when she was making her run, it is said to see her performance, her effort, not matched by the rest of the team," said Pirtle. "That is why we brought her in her. I new I had a special player when she came into my office and told me, ‘Coach, I win wherever I go'. That just speaks to how great a player she is, but mainly most importantly how great a competitor she is, how badly she wants to win."
Even though she gave one of her best individual all-around performances at any level, and basically the only full-hearted effort for the Bearcats on Wednesday night, Bellman was could find little solace in her individual accolades.
"I just want to win games. Winning is the reason why I am here," said the choked-up Bellman who showed the selfless team-first attitude she exhibited in the media room on the court by doing all the dirty work. Bellman dished out five assists, while pulling down four rebounds (two offensive boards), ripping away four steals and blocking two shots. "I just had to do my part to help win the game. We didn't win, so I didn't do enough on the court."
The kid from Ottawa, Ohio gave it her all for the 36 minutes she was on the floor, but also the four minutes she was on the bench and more than likely more than likely gave more of the same in the locker room. Bellman gave it all she had even to the point of committing turnovers. Down seven at the 1:41 mark, ball in her hands, Bellman tried to force the issue and get the game back to within striking distance by creating offense for herself and her teammates, but had the ball ripped away. Hit hard, Bellman fell to the floor, but you could see that the fact she could not produce for her team in the clutch hurt her far more than the bump from stocky SJU point guard Lisa Claxton.
UC must rebound (literally and figuratively from this loss, as they will have little time to prepare for a difficult Syracuse team in New York this Saturday.