Wednesday, November 03, 1999

XU women riding high after UConn loss

Muskies gained national respect despite defeat

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One game, and everything changed.

        It was a loss, of all things. But Xavier landed on the national women's college basketball map thanks to a two-point defeat to perennial powerhouse Connecticut in the second round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament.

        The Musketeers return four of five starters from the most successful team in school history. But as the back of their practice jerseys say, there is unfinished business. XU finished No.24 in the USA Today/ESPN poll, yet the only publication to rank them this preseason is Basketball Digest,which has them 18th.

        “I still think people are overlooking us, and I still don't think that we've gained the respect that we deserve,” junior Jennifer Phillips said. “But that's fine. This may be one of the most talented teams I've ever played on, through AAU and everything.”

        “We need to prove that last year wasn't a fairy tale,” fifth-year coach Melanie Balcomb said. “I want a program that is respected not just for that one game.”

        A quick refresher: Underdog Xavier led UConn — playing before a sellout crowd at UConn — by 10 points with 4:50 left, but lost on two Connecticut free throws with 7.1 seconds remaining.

        XU finished 24-9, the most victories ever for the program. The team's record has improved each of the last three years.

        The Musketeers were devastated by the loss — and unprepared for what was to follow.

        Players were bombarded by letters and e-mail from all over the country. Fans and college coaches wrote. Compliments flowed.

        Balcomb, too, entered a whole new arena. She was asked to interview for jobs at Purdue, the defending national champion, as well as Northwestern and Washington State. Media mem bers covering those coaching searches were calling her at home and in hotel rooms. At the women's Final Four, fellow coaches, many of whom had never spoken to her before, were telling Balcomb that the Xavier-UConn game was the best of the NCAA Tournament. “I wasn't ready for it,” she said. “The players weren't ready for it. We were overwhelmed with the attention we got. You don't prepare for what happens after you do something great.”

        Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer called and invited Balcomb to talk at her clinic. Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach, plopped down next to Balcomb at the Nike camp in Indianapolis in July and told the Xavi er coach how much she enjoyed watching her team play.

        “She looked at my shirt and saw the "X,'” Balcomb said. “I don't even think she knew my name.”

        Few noticed last season as Xavier upset Ohio State in Columbus. Or when the Musketeers handed nationally ranked Virginia Tech its first loss, then lost to the Hokies by one point in Blacksburg, Va., and later beat them again in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament when Virginia Tech was ranked No.11.

        Those games weren't nationally televised like the showdown against UConn, which followed Xavier's upset of No.23 Florida International in the first round of the NCAA.

        “I'm the most famous person for a loss that I've ever seen,” Balcomb told other coaches during the summer.

        XU assistant coach Kristin Schneider said she is having a harder time scheduling games. Vanderbilt is lined up for the 2000 opener in the Cintas Center, but Big Ten teams are reluctant to come to town.

        Assistant Tricia Cullop, the lead recruiter, said the Musketeers coaches now get into homes of players they would not otherwise have been invited into. Xavier's recruiting base is expanding out of the immediate region. This summer, players from California, Kansas, New Jersey, Virginia, Michigan and Eastern Penn sylvania said they not only knew of Xavier but had seen the UConn game.

        “In the past, maybe they had heard of our men's team and maybe had heard of Xavier, but I had to explain if it was Xavier, New Orleans, or Xavier of Cincinnati, Ohio,” Cullop said.

        Already three players have verbally committed to attend Xavier: Allison Lipinski of Garfield Heights, Ohio; Kate Kreager of Chantilly, Va.; and Charlyn Hawkins of Butler Community College in Kansas.

        Hawkins, a New Jersey native, said she watched the Xavier-UConn game and was cheering for the Musketeers. “I love their style of play,” she said. That was a factor in her picking XU.

        “That was the best game I've ever seen,” Lipinski said. “I was standing up yelling at the TV. I still would've liked (Xavier) and I knew they were a good program. I guess it did influence me in a way.”

        Xavier has upgraded its commitment to its women's program.

        Balcomb, who had been working on one-year contracts, was signed to a five-year deal after the season, sources say.

        The university is spending more than $10,000 on new marketing for the program and made televising the UC-Xavier women's game an issue when signing a new TV contract with WB64, which will broadcast this sea son's game and the crosstown rivalry in 2001-2002.

        “What we're trying to do is capitalize on the excitement of women's basketball from last year,” said Greg Amodio, assistant athletic director for marketing, “and say to the fans, "Don't just come to one game, become a fan for the season.'”

        Balcomb and the players have sensed an excitement from the campus and the community.

        “We expect to go up another level,” senior Kim Hotz said. “We want to do better than last year. We want to win the A-10 Tournament and get to the Sweet 16.”


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