When the University of Cincinnati women's basketball team lost to Ohio State on a last-second shot in the first-round of the 2001 Women's National Invitational Tournament, head coach Laurie Pirtle challenged her team.
"Next season, we will go the distance," Pirtle said.
It began as a simple statement. In 2001-02, the Bearcats would win the close games, finish plays and do all the little things that would vault the team to the next level.
"Go the Distance" became Cincinnati's mantra. It was printed up on t-shirts and banners talked about in practice and signs were put up in the team room.
It was just a general statement to many, but to the 2001-02 Bearcatsm it was a goal.
All the ingredients were in place. Five starters and seven letterwinners returned from a 22-10 season. Valerie King, the 2001 Conference USA Tournament MVP, and all-tourney selection K.B. Sharp were back to head a talented backcourt and Cincinnati's recruiting class was ranked 29th in the country, giving the Bearcats additional weapons.
The 2001-02 Bearcats quickly learned that when all the ingredients were mixed together, there was no telling how far this team could go.
A School-Record Start
The Bearcats started the 2001-02 season witha short road trip to Dayton, a place where Cincinnati hadn't won since the 1994-95 season. The Bearcats defeated the Flyers, 70-58, behind Valerie King's 26 points. Tammy Douglass added 18 points and 14 rebounds and freshman Debbie Merrill hinted at things to come by chipping in nine points and seven rebounds.
All 11 healthy players scored and the Bearcat defense held Robert Morris to 12 first-half points enroute to a 71-29 drubbing. Sharp set a school record for assists in a single game with 13.
Middle Tennessee State provided the Bearcats their first test of the season as UC found itself down by one with less than a minute to go. But Valerie King nailed a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left and Cincinnati escaped with a 65-63 victory.
After a win against Saint Francis, Cincinnati was set to take on Xavier in the annual Skyline Chili Women's Crosstown Shootout. The Bearcats came into the rivalry having won the last six meetings. UC made it seven. Debbie Merrill scored 22 points and pulled down 13 rebounds and Tammy Douglass added 13 points as the Bearcats prevailed, 62-56.
The Bearcats had one of their best all-around games of the season in their 81-59 win over Nebraska on Dec. 11. King poured in 33 points and Merrill added 19 as UC improved to 6-0 for the first time in school history.
Another Bearcat Invitational Win
Cincinnati set out to defend its Bearcat Invitational title, one it has won every year since it's inception in 1995. This time, the Bearcats hosted Troy State, East Tennessee State and Belmont.
In the opening-round win over Troy State, UC exhibited its first-half dominance, racing to a 62-16 lead. Cincinnati cruised into the championship game with a 92-49 win.
Belmont gave Cincinnati a run for it's money in the championship game. The Bruins led, 69-68, with four minutes left, but UC scored 19 of the final 23 points to take a 87-73 decision and win its sixth Bearcat Invitational title. Debbie Merrill and K.B. Sharp were named to the All-Tournament team, while Valerie King earned her second consecutive tournament MVP award.
A Perfect Record and A Ranking
Cincinnati closed out the month of December with three more wins to extend its record to 11-0, the best start in school history.
After destroying Sacred Heart, 75-42, behind 24 points and 10 rebounds from Merrill, the Bearcats traveled to Butler, where King exploded for a career-high 39 points to lead UC to a 94-66 win.
After Christmas Break, Cincinnati took on perennial SEC power Mississippi State and defeated the Lady Bulldogs, 74-57, behind King's game-high 25 points.
After that impressive win over Mississippi State, the Bearcats earned themselves another first, a top-25 ranking. The Bearcats debuted in the national polls on Dec. 31, receiving a No. 23 ranking in the USA Today/ESPN poll and No. 25 by the Associated Press.
A Slow Start in January
Cincinnati opened the Conference USA schedule on Jan. 4 at Louisville. The Cardinals had won the last three meetings against the Bearcats and were looking to extend that streak, while UC was looking to extend its school-record season opening win streak and win its first game as a ranked team.
The game was a battle from the beginning, but Louisville held UC's leading scorers, King and Merrill, to 11 and eight points, respectively, and defeated Cincinnati, 71-65.
After the Louisville loss, the Bearcats needed to regroup and fast because they had a tough Syracuse team coming to town for a break in Conference USA action.
Syracuse's Jaime Wright hit a jumper with 0.1 seconds left to give Syracuse a 70-68 win. The loss was the Bearcats' only home defeat of the season.
The losses knocked Cincinnati out of the top 25 after a one-week stay. The Bearcats needed to find a way to regroup.
When East Carolina and Charlotte came to town that next weekend, the Bearcats were ready. They took out their frustrations on the Pirates, winning handily, 77-52, then defeated Charlotte, 87-58. Head Coach Laurie Pirtle achieved her 300th career win in the Charlotte game.
In mid-January, Cincinnati hit the road again. TCU and Houston loomed large on the horizon and the Bearcats needed to clear through Texas with two wins to have a chance at winning the Conference USA title.
TCU thwarted that goal. The Horned Frogs used stifling defense which limited the Bearcats to 24 first-half points and only 28 percent shooting for the game and handed Cincinnati a 73-57 loss, one of UC's worst of the season.
The game against Houston became the Chandi Jones/Valerie King show as each player tried to get the better of the other.
Everytime one would score to put her team ahead, the other would retaliate to bring her team back. King (32) got the better of Jones (30) point wise, but Jones' team defeated the Bearcats, 89-78, in overtime, to send Cincinnati back home from Texas 0-2.
Suddenly the Bearcats were searching for answers. The once-promising season was threatening to fall apart. it had reached a critical turning point and the Bearcats chose to go the distance.
The not-so-good road trip to Texas proved to be a turning point for the 2001-02 Cincinnati Bearcats. After dropping four of six games during the first part of January, the Bearcats wouldn't lose again.
A Perfect Finish
Cincinnati came home the very next weekend and crushed both UAB and South Florida.
The Bearcats held the Blazers to 13 first-half points enroute to a 78-35 win. Against South Florida, UC had four players in double figures and dominated the boards, pulling down 62 rebounds, the second-highest total in school history, and defeated the Bulls, 92-47.
Another road trip was ahead and after the Texas trip, many people had reservations. But not the Bearcats.
They defeated Tulane, which was picked to win the Conference USA regular-season title, 76-50, and beat a Southern Miss team who was 8-0 at home, 65-56.
Next up were home games with Saint Louis and Memphis. The Saint Louis game proved to be a challenge for the Bearcats, but this time it was a challenge he would answer.
Harmonie King gave Saint Louis a 55-54 advantage with 39 seconds left and Laura Wilder missed a potential go-ahead shot with 18 seconds left. After Merrill fouled a Billiken, she stole the in-bounds pass and fed it to King, who quickly shot a jumper. She missed-- but Wilder was on the other side of the basket and tipped in the shot with .8 left on the clock to win the game, 56-55.
Cincinnati defeated Memphis, 85-59, more easily two days later.
The wins over Saint Louis and Memphis propelled the Bearcats back in the Top-25 at No. 25 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll. A road trip to Marquette and DePaul faced the Bearcats and this time, the rankings wouldn't serve as a jinx as Cincinnati defeated Marquette, 63-53, and DePaul, 75-51. Debbie Merrill had her best game as a Bearcat, scoring 26 points and pulling down a career-high 19 rebounds at DePaul. King scored 20 points.
UC was now 21-4 with two games left to play. After wins against Marquette and DePaul, UC clinched a first-round bye at the C-USA Tournament. All the Bearcats needed was to win their last two games and TCU and Houston would give them a share of the league title. But they didn't lose and the Bearcats ended the season tied for second along with Houston and earned the No. 3 seed in the Conference USA Tournament.
The Bearcats defeated Kentucky, 73-57, on another break from league action on Feb. 19. Valerie King scored 16 points to achieve her 1,000th career point, making her the third-fastest C-USA player to reach the milestone.
In the regular-season finale against Louisville, the Bearcats played in front of a record 7.246 people and routed the Cardinals, 85-71, to take a 23-4 record into the league tournament.
A Tournament Title
The Bearcats rode an 11-game win streak into the C-USA Tournament, but they were also fighting something else, Tulane.
UC has played in the tournament final twice in the last four years and lost both times to Tulane. This year would be the Bearcats year. Following a first-round bye, UC faced Louisville in the quarterfinals. Debbie Merrill scored a career-high 31 points to lead the Bearcats to a 80-70 win. Valerie King continued her tournament
heroics by adding 26 points. Next up was Houston in the semifinals.
There was revenge on the Bearcats' minds as Houston was the last team to beat UC back on Jan. 20. Cincinnati avenged that loss, but the win proved costly as Merrill and Wilder collided while trying to go after a loose ball and knocked heads. Wilder ended up with a large knot on her forehead, while Merrill was cut above her right eye and bled profusely. She went to the hospital and received 31 stitches. The Bearcats quickly regrouped and rode King's 31 points to a 78-74 win and a date in the championship game. The only question now was, would Merrill return for the title game? She returned.
Tulane upset TCU in over time to earn a berth in the title game against UC. Tulane was a tournament veteran, winning the last three league tournament titles.
This time, the Bearcats never trailed in the game. King scored 23 points, Wilder had 15 and Sharp added 14 points and six assists to lead UCto a 68-56 win and their first Conference USA tournament title.
Merrill was named to the all-tournament team and for the second consecutive year, King was named the tournament MVP, after averaging 26.6 points during the three games. With the win, they earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, something the Bearcats had never done.
Cincinnati took on St. Peter's at the NCAA East Regional in Columbia, S.C. The Bearcats and the Peahens played a close game throughout, with nine lead changes and four ties. St. Peter's led, 59-57, when Sharp made a lay up with six seconds left to send the game into overtime. In the extra session, King took over. She scored 13 of the team's 17 overtime points as Cincinnati won the game, 76-63, giving UC its first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
The next game proved to be more difficult, however, as the South Carolina Lady Gamecocks used tenacious defense and a 25-0 run to hand UC it's first loss (75-56) in 14 games.
So, even as the Bearcats NCAA tournament run ended sooner than they would've liked, Cincinnati had a season it had prepared for ever since the 2000-01 season, when the Ohio State basket went through ending the season. The Bearcats achieved their goals of a C-USA tournament title and a berth in the NCAA's.
They went the distance and now, the NCAA's are just the beginning.