By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Only experience can teach the lessons needed to be successful in the NCAA Tournament. And Xavier women's coach Kevin McGuff, who will lead his young Musketeers into a first-round game Sunday night, has plenty of tournament experience to impart.
Before leading XU to a 20-9 record as a rookie head coach, McGuff was an assistant for six seasons at Notre Dame. In those six seasons, the Irish advanced to at least the second round, made the Sweet 16 four times, reached the Final Four twice and won one national title.
Playing in the tournament for the first time, said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw: "It's similar to being a freshman on a team. Everything is new. You don't know what to expect. The rules are different. The pressure is greater. You just know what to do if you've been there."
Only three Xavier players saw action in the Elite Eight run two years ago. Guards Amy Waugh and Reetta Piipari were regulars, and forward Aida Sarajlija played for one minute.
McGuff's experience could play a big part in Xavier's game at 9 p.m. Sunday against UC Santa Barbara.
"The thing that I took from (the Notre Dame years) most is you have to continue to do the things that brought you to this point, which, for us, is great preparation, great intensity and great focus," McGuff said. "If we do that, we will be successful. I think a lot of teams, they may try something fancy or something that is out of their element, and I don't think that allows you to be successful.
"My experience has been, `Hey, we continue to do what we do and do it better because we continue to improve.' "
In six years at Notre Dame, McGuff enjoyed a 160-39 record while working for McGraw.
Xavier's record over the same six-year span under former coach Melanie Balcomb was 120-65. In that time, the Musketeers played in three NCAA Tournaments and one NIT.
"The expectations are great (at Notre Dame)," McGuff said. "What you do in any situation like that, and what we are in the process of doing here, is you establish a certain culture - of winning and being successful. You come to expect it as coaches and players.
"And you live that. If you live that every day through the season, good things will happen to you at this time of the year."
Xavier, led by seniors Waugh and Piipari, suffered consecutive losses only once during McGuff's rookie season. XU started 8-1 before losing at UC and Mississippi State. The Musketeers had a season-high five-game win streak.
Xavier also handed George Washington its only conference loss, 94-92 in four overtimes Feb. 9 at home.
GW coach Joe McKeown said he noticed the difference McGuff made in the Muskies.
"I'm well aware of Kevin. (Notre Dame) beat us one year to go to the Final Four," McKeown said. "Kevin has created an atmosphere at Xavier, and they seemed to lose it last year, of quiet confidence. They've got some of their swagger back."
Piipari is one of five starters to start all five games. The others are Waugh, sophomore Alexis Henderson and freshmen Kristy Wallner and Tara Boothe.
"He brought a lot of energy with the new staff. He is young," Piipari said of McGuff, who was 32 when announced June 13 to replace Balcomb, who resigned to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt.
"That was one of the biggest things. We had a totally new team. Everybody has worked real hard to get to this point."
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