Sunday, March 14, 1999

Xavier gets chance to step up one level

Top-seeded UConn, crowd waiting today

Enquirer contributor

Xavier coach Melanie Balcomb appears at a press conference Saturday with Nikki Kremer and Nicole Levandusky.
(AP photo)

| ZOOM |
        STORRS, Conn — Xavier finds itself at one of women's basketball's epicenters, a place where sellout crowds shake the court and all the trappings, from ushers to scalpers, suggest it's big-time.

        As the Musketeers take on Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Mideast Regional (9 p.m.) at Gampel Pavilion, coach Melanie Balcomb can see the future.

        “I can tell (university officials) about my vision, talk with all the passion,” Balcomb said, “but I couldn't have a better example to show them what we could be.”

XAVIER (8) vs. UCONN (1)
  • When: 9 p.m. today
  • Where: Storrs, Conn.
  • TV: ESPN2
  • Records: XU 24-8; Connecticut 28-4
        Balcomb was an assistant at Providence in the early 1990s, just as UConn coach Geno Auriemma was building this tower of power.

        They were recruiting the same players — Balcomb nearly snatched Jen Rizzotti, point guard for UConn's unbeaten national championship team of 1995, away from Auriemma. Providence, in '93, was the last Big East team to beat UConn in the league tournament.

        “You could see back then the way things were being done here, that it was ahead (of its time),” Balcomb said. “They had the resources, the commitment. You could see the program was treated with respect. Things like having ushers at the games.”

        Xavier sells out its 2,000-seat building only occasionally; the Huskies sell out every game at 10,000-seat Gampel, but in her third season at Xavier, Bal comb is making strides. The Musketeers (24-8) got the school's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory Friday night, an 85-71 victory over Florida International. Tonight, they take on the Huskies (28-4), ranked fourth in the nation, seeded first in this regional.

        UConn has reached the elite five years in a row and shows no signs of slowing down this March. The winner of tonight's game advances to the regional semifinals — at the University of Cincinnati — next week.

        “When we made the Sweet 16 for the first time (in 1991), I remember that was one of the most exciting times I've ever had here at UConn, except for our national championship,” Auriemma said, “so I can imagine how Xavier would feel if they made it for the first time. I've been there.”

        While visitors to UConn are enchanted by visions of what they want to be, success depends on losing that deer-in-the-headlamps look very quickly.

        The quickest way for Xavier, which will begin playing in its own new arena the year after next, to put itself prominently on the national map would be to pull the miracle tonight — beat 'em and join 'em.

        The obstacle is huge, but, then, so is the opportunity.

        “This is the chance of a lifetime,” said senior Nikki Kremer, “if we can represent ourselves well, we'll get respect.”

        Said sophomore guard Nicole Levandusky: “If we can win, we can show that we're not some fluke team that made the NCAAs.”

        Xavier will try to play UConn's game, depending on rebounding and running. “They're an aggressive team,” Auriemma said, “and aggressive teams are usually good teams.”

        Kremer's poise and ballhandling will be critical against UConn's relentless pressing and trapping, and Levandusky, who scored 23 against Florida International, must force UConn to respect the perimeter game.