Saturday, March 24, 2001

Xavier aims slingshot at Tennessee


Musketeers could make mark against nation's marquee team

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Nicole Levandusky and teammates practice in Birmingham Friday.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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        BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Xavier's two-point NCAA Tournament loss two years ago to fourth-ranked Connecticut gave the program some national attention.A victory today against third-ranked Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament's Mideast Regional would give the Musketeers national respect and remove their biggest obstacle to the Final Four.

        The game will begin at noon Cincinnati time and will be televised on ESPN.

        If XU can upset the nation's marquee women's basketball team, it would play the winner of Purdue-Texas Tech on Monday for the regional championship.

        Legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who's won six national championships, knows what's on Xavier's mind.

        “I look at the women's game at Xavier as what's happening this season,” Summitt said. “They want to establish a national reputation. We have great tradition. We had to establish that.”

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Xavier coach Melanie Balcomb talks with Jennifer Parr.
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        While Tennessee is the nation's most successful women's basketball program, and is deep, tall and fast. XU's attributes include size, experience, and a solid performance against common opponents.

        • The Musketeers have size and experience inside in honorable mention All-America players Jennifer Phillips and Taru Tuukkanen. Both are 6-foot-3 and will have to rebound with Tennessee's dominant pivot players, Michelle Snow and Ashley Robinson.

        Snow, only the third woman to dunk a ball, averages 6.8 rebounds and 11.1 points agame. Robinson, a freshman, gets 5.3 rebounds and 8.8 points a game.

        The Lady Vols are deep, too. They bring 6-2 Gwen Jackson (6.3 rebounds a game) and the 6-3 former Taylor High School star Shalon Pillow off the bench. But Summitt has been critical of her inside players for not being physical enough.

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Tennessee coach Pat Summitt shares a light moment with Tasha Butts.
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        Xavier's top two pivot substitutes, 6-1 senior Erin Hall and 6-3 freshman Kate Kreager, will have to match up with Tennessee's big players.

        “We need to check out. We can't give them second and third chances at the basket,” Xavier coach Melanie Balcomb said Friday. “We have to try to keep them in a half-court game.”

        Xavier defeated the same teams Tennessee did this season (Kentucky, Clemson) and beat Vanderbilt, which topped the Lady Vols 77-74 in the SEC tournament. (UT went 2-1 vs. Vandy.)

        The big crowd expected for today's game in the 17,100-seat Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex arena will be decidedly pro-Tennessee because of the proximity to Knoxville.

        “We like playing in front of big crowds,” Tuukkanen said. “We haven't been affected by big crowds in a negative way.”

        While Xavier players are tired of talking about the UConn game, the 86-84 loss in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament two years ago, Balcomb said the game provided big-time experience for her team.

        The game was played at UConn's home arena, and five XU players — including starters Tuukkanen, Phillips, Nicole Levandusky and Jennifer Parr — played there.

        “We don't talk about it,” Balcomb said. “But, at the same time, I know that game was great for us.”

        “We've got to look at it like any other game,” Levandusky said. “We can't look at it as, "Oh, we're playing Tennessee, the best team in the nation.' It's a great opportunity to play here.”

        Balcomb has told her team to worry about aspects of the game it can control.

        “We can control how hard we play. We can control how focused we are. We can control our attitude and our effort, but we can't control who our opponent is,” she said. “And I think right now they're not focused on who our opponent is. They're focused on what our task is and what our game plan is.”

        The game plan is to run, to quickly counter Tennessee scores and to try to prevent the Lady Vols from crashing the offensive boards.

        The 31-2 Lady Vols averaged 83.2 points a game. At 30-2, the Musketeers scored 79.5 a game and have the nation's longest winning streak at 20 games.

        “They're a great basketball team. We know they can score inside and outside,” Tennessee senior forward Semeka Randall said. “We have to contest their 3s and watch their inside game. They'll be ready to play us.”

Complete tournament coverage at Cincinnati.com



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