Saturday, December 09, 2000

Phillips drive like no other

        Except for when she's on the receiving end of a stray elbow in the sternum, Jennifer Phillips is nearly as good as new.

        The doctors fixed her congenital heart defect three years ago, but to do so they had to slice through the Xavier center's breastbone with a surgical saw. To enable the bone to fuse back together, they rigged Phillips' rib cage with three stainless steel wires.

        The pain is mostly in the past, but rebounding provides constant reminders. When she gets hit just right in the wrong spot, Phillips admits that “it aches.”

Jennifer Phillips scored 21 against Kentucky Wednesday.
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        You want to know who's the toughest basketball player in town? You might start with the pony-tailed pivot of the women Musketeers.

        “I think she's really strong-willed as a person,” Xavier coach Melanie Balcomb said Friday. “She's got an extremely tough work ethic and she's taken a lot, starting with her heart problems. She can always take a hit and get knocked down and she gets up quicker than anybody. That's the kind of kid she is.”

Leader in every way
        Physically, emotionally and even chronologically, Phillips is no kid any more. She is 21 years old, 6-foot-3 and a formidable force on the low blocks. She scored 21 points Wednesday night in Xavier's 80-62 victory over Kentucky and scolded herself for not scoring more.

        “Kentucky was a really athletic team, and I wasn't taking my time on my shots,” she said. “They made me rush. I do that sometimes — I kind of spaz out and miss some easy shots instead of keeping my composure.”

        Notwithstanding her occasional spaz-out, Phillips misses fewer shots than any woman who has ever played at Xavier. Customarily double-teamed in the post, her career shooting percentage of .544 exceeds that of Jo Ann Osterkamp (.532), who holds most of the school's major scoring records.

        Her accuracy has suffered some this season as her scoring responsibilities have grown, but Phillips is as good a reason as any that the Muskies are 6-0, ranked 19th in the nation and likely to stage the most meaningful March of any local college team.

        “She's a tremendous leader right now for our team,” Balcomb said. “The players all look to her in practice. She's a vocal leader and a leader by example. Some players are one or the other, but Jenn does both.”

Competitive, determined
        Jennifer Phillips' example is one few players could be expected to follow. Less than three months after her chest had been cut open to repair a small hole in the heart known as an atrial septal defect, Phillips bounced off the Xavier bench into a game against Northern Illinois. She refused to be redshirted as a freshman, preferring to play a painful partial season rather than preserve a full year of eligibility.

        “We knew she wore a real strong pad on her chest, but we were all a little tentative every time she started to take contact,” Balcomb said. “We were more nervous and scared than she was.”

        Phillips does not scare easily. Asked to select two words to describe her game, the Lima native chose adjectives that convey conviction: “competitive” and “determined.”

        Open-heart surgery has a way of enhancing one's sense of purpose. When Jennifer Phillips drives to the basket, she is unusually driven.



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