Xavier and Gonzaga are similar at first glance, Jesuit schools of about 7,000 students that have good basketball teams.
It just seems like Xavier, Gonzaga’s opponent in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Saturday night in Seattle, is bigger.
Actually, the Musketeers are bigger with Ta’Shia Phillips, a 6-foot-6 sophomore center.
Phillips, who was a McDonald’s All-American out of Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis, is fourth in the nation in rebounding and shooting while leading Xavier in scoring (13.5).
“She’s very physical around the basket,” Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. “She plays very hard. She’s a terrific defender and rugged rebounder. She works hard for good position, which allows her to shoot a high percentage.”
There are a couple of other factors that add to the perception of a bigger size, not just because the Musketeers play in the Atlantic 10 Conference, which has 14 teams – with eight advancing to the postseason.
Xavier (25-6) has been ranked all season, settling at No. 20 after losing in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Still, the Musketeers made their third straight NCAA, eighth overall, and eighth postseason tournament in McGuff’s eight seasons.
Gonzaga (26-6) is in its second NCAA tournament in three seasons and fifth postseason tournament in six years, but the other seven West Coast Conference members are not consistently holding up their end of the bargain. While seven A-10 schools won 20 games, only GU hit that milestone – for the third straight year while winning or sharing the league title five straight seasons.
But those are just numbers. The real concern for the Bulldogs is what the Musketeers put on the court and that starts with Phillips, the kind of difference maker who makes a program.
Phillips averaged 21.6 points, 15.3 rebounds and 3.2 blocks her senior year and the two-time state champion finished her career with 1,939 points and 1,308 rebounds. That made her one of the top recruits in the country, but picking Xavier wasn’t difficult.
“It was just like my high school, a Jesuit institution,” she said. “I figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I did pretty well at that school, I felt like I’d keep with pattern. This is just the perfect fit. There are a lot of places you can do a lot at, but this team is up and coming and we can achieve some things.”
“We were fortunate,” McGuff said of his recruiting coup. “The year before we got Amber Harris. They were AAU teammates in Indianapolis and good friends. That was part of the attraction to our program. Also, we were a great academic fit, also only 90 miles from Indianapolis. She wanted a school on the rise. She wanted to help take us to another level.”
Phillips, an entrepreneurial studies major with a goal of being a business lawyer, was a fantastic freshman, averaging 14 points a game on 59.4 percent shooting, and set a school record with 371 rebounds (11.2) to be named the A-10 Rookie of the Year.
The Musketeers went 24-9, losing to Nebraska in the first round of the NCAA tournament – in what was the Spokane Regional.
“We definitely learned you have to be prepared, you have to bring all your weapons, you have to be in great shape and you have to have mental focus,” Phillips said of her first tournament experience. “Everything has to be on key.
“We’re more experienced than we were last year. We’re a different team as far as skill set. More people have stepped up for us.”
No one more than Phillips.
“She’s a great kid,” McGuff said. “She’s an incredibly hard worker. Her best days are still ahead of her.”
The A-10 postseason teams are Xavier, Charlotte and Temple in the NCAA; St. Bonaventure, Richmond, Duquesne, George Washington and Dayton received invitations to the WNIT. The A-10 Conference enters postseason play ranked seventh. … The 20th-ranked Xavier men (25-7) are a four seed, playing Portland State in Boise. … The Musketeers return all five starters but that includes Harris, who has missed the season with a knee injury. The 6-5 forward started all 67 games her first two years, averaging 15.8 points a game. She has been practicing and could play. … Xavier had a 15-game winning streak before losing two of its last three games. … Gonzaga expects a lot of support playing at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, but so does Montana (28-4), a No. 13 seed facing fourth-seeded and 15th-ranked Pittsburgh. Three years ago the Lady Griz lost to Vanderbilt in Seattle before a partisan crowd of about 3,000. … Pittsburgh did make it to the regional in Spokane last season and now the Panthers are in the same group with Gonzaga. “I think it’s a great draw,” Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berneato said in a school release. “We were hoping to be a No. 4. I’m glad we get to play Montana. We know a lot about them and the way they play. After that it looks like we could play Xavier, but I’m really excited.”