March 28, 2010
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The size difference was striking even during pregame warmups, which began at an hour when most Xavier players would have been in bed back home in Cincinnati.
Although Gonzaga has a little height, these Musketeers are super-sized -- and they used every bit of that advantage to muscle their way into their first NCAA tournament regional final in nine years.
Ta'Shia Phillips had 22 points and 14 rebounds, Katie Rutan added 15 points and third-seeded Xavier rumbled to its 21st straight victory, 74-56 over Gonzaga on Saturday night.
Amber Harris had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the imposing Musketeers (30-3), who broke free of the Zags early in the second half of a game that ended around 1:30 a.m. back home. But nobody in Xavier's exuberant little traveling party was looking to sleep after Phillips and Harris powered them into a date with top-seeded Stanford on Monday night.
Xavier also got a measure of revenge for the Zags' upset victory over the fifth-seeded Musketeers in last season's NCAA first round. Harris, the Atlantic 10's player of the year, missed all of last season with a knee injury, and she finally got to show the Zags what they avoided.
"We didn't look at it as a payback thing," said Phillips, who had 15 points and nine rebounds after halftime. "We remembered the feeling of being knocked out, and that's what we didn't want to repeat this year."
With 40 minutes of patient low-post work, Xavier's punishing tandem of the 6-foot-6 Phillips and the 6-5 Harris calmly battered Gonzaga (29-5), which had its own 20-game winning streak snapped at the close of the most successful season in school history.
Special Jennings scored 12 points for the Musketeers, who are in a regional final for just the second time in school history, joining the 2001 team. Xavier hadn't been past the first round in four subsequent tries before this remarkable run.
Jennings said she credits the second-half surge to "energy. In the first half, we didn't have that much. We looked a little lackadaisical, but we came out in the second half with energy and passion."
After that relentless second-half offensive effort, which included a stunning 28-12 rebounding edge, Xavier didn't even have to endure another nail-biter after its previous four games went down to the final minutes.
Gonzaga's 74-59 win over Xavier in last season was the Zags' first NCAA tournament victory and another NCAA disappointment for the Musketeers. Both teams eclipsed that moment this season after dominating their respective conferences with perfect regular-season efforts and championship runs through league tournaments.
While Xavier relies on its low-post game, Rutan has provided outside shooting that the Musketeers lacked in last season's loss to Gonzaga. Rutan hit three of her four 3-pointers in the first half.
"I know it took a little while, but I really wanted to help the team out," Rutan said. "They focused on our bigs more because it was a big size difference. My defender helped more, especially off screens, and that opened up more shots for me."
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves cited that inside-out problem as the key to the loss.
"It's difficult to key on even one post player ... and they've got two, and then (Rutan) on the outside," Graves said. "You've got to scramble, and I thought all night we were just scrambling around. At some point, their 6-foot post players just wore us down. I didn't know what else to do."
Katelan Redmon scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half, but the rest of the Zags were shut down by Xavier's defense -- particularly their two best players.
Heather Bowman, the leading scorer in Gonzaga history, finished her career with 12 points. But badgered by Xavier's low-post defense, she didn't score in the second half until hitting two free throws with 5:56 to play when the Zags trailed by 15.
"It was a byproduct of good overall defense," Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. "The other thing in the second half was they only had one run. Our transition defense was terrific, and our energy was great."
Xavier also stymied Courtney Vandersloot, Bowman's point guard and the West Coast Conference's player of the year. She had five of her 11 assists in the second half, but didn't score.
"I think both teams knew coming into this game it was a different game from last year," Vandersloot said. "I don't think they focused on last year. They just outplayed us."