Thursday, March 15, 2001

Xavier women reach for the stars

Musketeers want to prove they can play with the best

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Senior Jennifer Phillips (center) talks with freshman Kate Kreager at practice Wednesday. At left is senior Nicole Levandusky.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        On Jan. 24, 1998, Xavier women's basketball coach Melanie Balcomb put two freshmen in her starting lineup.

        Nicole Levandusky and Jennifer Phillips have started 106 straight games, most alongside classmate Taru Tuukkanen, and the Musketeers have won 84 times. They are part of a senior class that has carried the program to national prominence, a No. 11 ranking in the coaches' poll and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

        Of the city's college basketball teams invited to national tournaments, which begin today, the Xavier women are most likely to stick around the longest.

        The 28-2 Musketeers will play their first game at about 8:30 Friday night at Cintas Center against No. 13 seed Louisville, and their second-round game would be at home as well.

  Xavier said 5,000 all-sessions tickets for the women's NCAA games at Cintas Center this weekend had been sold as of Wednesday afternoon.
  Xavier plays Louisville about 8:30 p.m. Friday at Cintas Center. Clemson plays Chattanooga at 6 p.m. Winners play at 1:05 Sunday.
  All-sessions tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students, and are available at the XU ticket office and TicketMaster outlets or by calling (513) 745-3411.
        Here is what Ms. Levandusky, Ms. Phillips and Ms. Tuukkanen have meant: Before they were recruited, Ms. Balcomb was 25-30 in two seasons and facing rumors on campus that her job was in jeopardy.

        Since the trio came to Xavier with classmates Jennifer Parr and Erin (Senser) Hall, the Musketeers are 95-28 and have three straight NCAA bids, back-to-back Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament titles, and the program's three winningest seasons.

        “If you look at the polls in recent years, there aren't a whole lot of new faces in there,” said ESPN women's basketball analyst Beth Mowins. “And there aren't a lot of teams outside what you'd consider the power conferences — big-name schools with huge student bodies. That's what makes their move so impressive.”

        This NCAA Tournament could take XU to the next step.

Coach Melanie Balcomb gets some encouragement from former XU President Rev. James Hoff.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        “We're at the national level, and now it's just showing people we can play with the Tennessees, the UConns, the Dukes and the Notre Dames,” Ms. Levandusky said. “A lot of people look at Xavier now and say, "OK, they're here, but can they really play with these teams?' We have to come out and prove it this year.”

        Three years ago this month, XU played in the women's NIT, the stepchild tournament to the NCAA. Xavier was happy just to be there and lost 80-74 to Indiana.

        But each year, expectations have grown. And now the future has arrived.

        The Class of 2001 got off to a shaky start. Ms. Tuukkanen, a native of Finland, was homesick. Ms. Phillips had open-heart surgery to repair a congenital heart defect three months before making her XU debut.

        But the Musketeers, still playing in Schmidt Fieldhouse and drawing only 745 fans a game, went 17-12 in 1997-98, quite a contrast to the team's 10-17 record of the previous season.

        “We knew we had talent,” Ms. Levandusky said, “but we didn't know at that point in time how talented we were.”

Taru Tuukkanen
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        XU found out the next season.

        They won 24 games, including the program's first NCAA Tournament victory, 85-71 against Florida International, then almost pulled a major upset.

        In the second round, Xavier played at perennial power Connecticut, before a sellout crowd of 10,027, and led by 10 points with 4:50 left before the fourth-ranked Huskies won 86-84 on two free throws with 7.1 seconds left.

        It was the turning point.

        “Before, when we would hear big names, we kind of laughed and joked about how we would get killed by that team,” said Ms. Phillips, who, along with Ms. Tuukkanen, received honorable mention on this year's Associated Press All-America team.

        “It's not really a joke anymore.”

        Since the loss to UConn, Xavier is 54-7. Last season, the Musketeers returned to the NCAA Tournament, but lost their first-round game by one point to Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. They learned from the loss.

        “You look Nicole, Jen and Taru in the face, and you see the confidence in their eyes,” Ms. Balcomb said. “Last year, I just saw uncertainty.”

Jennifer Phillips
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        A series of preseason injuries threatened to take the edge off a season billed as “Great Xpectations.” Junior Katie Griggs, a re turning starter, retired because of a disk problem in her back. Junior-college transfer Charlyn Hawkins missed the season with a torn knee ligament. Freshman Allison Lipinski left school four days before practice. And starting point guard Amy Waugh, a sophomore named to the preseason A-10 second team, ruptured an Achilles' tendon on Oct. 9.

        “All the adversity just made us stronger,” Ms. Balcomb said. “We were back in the role where we were not expected to win that many games. Our seniors love that role.”

        Ms. Parr, who had played just 42 games in her first three years — and started but two — moved into the lineup at shooting guard, started all 30 games and leads the team by averaging 34.6 minutes. Sophomore Reetta Piipari, another Finn, moved over to the point and leads the nation with 8.5 assists a game. And Ms. Waugh pushed herself to return Feb. 1 and has provided a spark and experience off the bench.

        The Musketeers opened the season and Cintas Center with a 64-60 victory over then-No. 19 Vanderbilt. Xavier won five more before losing for the first time, at Cincinnati. XU won another four before losing Jan. 6 at rival George Washington. The Musketeers have won 18 straight since then and are 28-2. In 13 home games, they drew an average of 2,058 fans, more than four times what they had four years ago.

        Ms. Phillips was named conference player of the year. And Ms. Balcomb is a candidate for national coach of the year.

        “The program is the best it's ever been right now,” Ms. Tuukkanen said, “and hopefully the next two weeks will be even better.”

Nicole Levandusky
        The names Tuukkanen, Levandusky and Phillips are all over the XU record book.

        They are three of the program's top six scorers. Ms. Phillips, sixth with 1,572, is 36 points away from fifth place. Ms. Tuukkanen is second with 1,729. Ms. Levandusky is fourth with 1,680.

        But they want to do more than leave scoring records. They want to be remembered.

        Ms. Levandusky: “A lot of people can go into a program and just be another player in the program, where, coming to Xavier, I was part of the building process.”

        Ms. Phillips: “We made a commitment to the program and each other and set a pretty good example. We've been successful, and I hope next year, even though we're graduating, they don't say, "Well, they're gone. We're screwed.' I hope they work hard and keep Xavier on the map.”

        Ms. Tuukkanen: “I hope we'll be remembered as the class who helped turn the program around.”

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