- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CINCINNATI -- Blessed with one of the the best collections of post players in the country in Amber Harris, Ta'Shia Phillips and April Phillips, what kind of chance does No. 10 Xavier have of becoming the first team from outside the six BCS conferences to reach the Final Four since Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State) in 2001?
With freshman Katie Rutan launching balls from everywhere this side of the Ohio River, it's safe to say the Musketeers have an outside shot of getting to San Antonio.
Xavier passed another Atlantic 10 test with flying colors Saturday in a 74-49 win against Dayton, the team that upset the Musketeers in last season's conference tournament and sat a half game out of second place in this season's standings. For their part, the Flyers entered the game with momentum to spare, having beaten a good Richmond team by 52 points last weekend and previously unbeaten-in-conference Duquesne by 22 points Wednesday.
They headed back up I-75 with their worst loss in more than a year.
"We're walking into this team that's just a buzz saw," Dayton coach Jim Jabir said. "They're great at every position. I mean, they've got shooters, they've got size, they've got athleticism, they're tough and they pushed us out of things we wanted to do."
Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips did what they do so well, posting dueling double-doubles (19 points and 14 rebounds for Harris, 16 points and 15 rebounds for Phillips) on a night when the Musketeers claimed a 56-30 rebounding edge against the only team in the conference that averaged more rebounds per game when the day began.
But as the clock ticked down in the second half, the small horde of grade schoolers bellowing Rutan's name from the sideline and holding "Katie's Corner" signs signaled who the star of the game was on this particular evening.
For much of the first half, Xavier looked like a team with a great post game, a stifling defense and limited offensive options beyond the paint. In other words, it looked like a lot of recent Xavier teams -- good enough to win a lot of games but not necessarily complete enough to win a lot of games in March. Despite staking their claim to the boards and limiting Dayton to 19 percent shooting from the floor, the Musketeers led by just six points at 23-17 with 2:26 to play in the first half.
Then with just more than a minute to play, the Flyers lost Rutan as she came around a screen and hit a 3-pointer to push the lead to 28-17. Seconds later, Dee Dee Jernigan pushed the ball ahead to Rutan in transition off a defensive rebound. Catching, planting and shooting in almost one motion -- still at least a step behind the men's 3-point line -- the freshman hit another. By halftime, it was 33-20 and teetering on the brink of the blowout it became.
"Honestly, I thought we did a decent job," Jabir said of the opening 18 minutes. "It was like 21-16, and they're averaging 79 points in the conference. We were struggling offensively, but defensively, I thought we did a great job on their shooters and a decent job on them inside. And then [Rutan] goes and hits one where we broke down and then the other one out of transition. And all of a sudden, they go into halftime up 13, and she had half of that. So it's just really, really tough."
Rutan finished with 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting from behind the arc, including another back-breaking 3-pointer in the early moments of the second half off an end run around a series of screens worthy of Reggie Miller. One of only two freshmen on the Xavier roster, she entered the game ranked in the top 30 nationally in both 3-pointers per game and 3-point field goal percentage. And while her coach might note there is always room for improvement on the defensive end, he played her 24 minutes in her first college game (in which she launched nine attempts from behind the arc against USC) and hasn't hesitated to keep putting her out there to fire away.
"Having watched her in high school and AAU, she's got a lot of confidence in her ability to make shots," Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. "But she's also got a great feel for the game, which sometimes makes it hard for freshmen to contribute right away, that learning curve. But I thought her curve would be much smaller than what most people's is."
Jernigan, who quietly had a outstanding game of her own (seven points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals), offered her own assessment of how quickly the veterans came to realize last summer that the new kid from just outside Philadelphia was special with the ball in her hands and her feet planted behind the 3-point line.
"Honestly, I was thinking about ways to get her open," Jernigan recalled of her first impression. "Honestly, like we've got to get her open. If we get her open, she's going to hit. I knew that from the summertime. She was never really on my team in the summer that much, but I knew from [playing against her on] the other team, like when we lose, it's because of Katie."
A lot of coaches around the country are going to feel like Jernigan after those summer runs. Between overtime of last season's Atlantic 10 quarterfinal against Dayton and a first-round game in the NCAA tournament against Gonzaga, Xavier hit just three of its final 22 shots from the 3-point line last season -- losing both games and scoring only 63 points in those 45 minutes of basketball. Granted, that was all without Harris, but considering this year's team lost essentially half of what 3-point production it had last season when Tudy Reed and Jerri Taylor graduated, outside shooting could have been this team's downfall.
Instead, it might be the ticket to postseason glory.
"That's the thing -- in the past, before they got Rutan, we would play off of Special [Jennings] and we would pack it in, and we've beaten them that way," Jabir said. "And they went out and did a great thing. Jennings got better; she's improved her shot. And they went and got [sophomore Tyeasha] Moss and Rutan. And now, you've got to try to do what you can to force them away from the rim without giving up too much from the 3-point line, as far as help."
Make absolutely no mistake: Xavier basketball belongs to Harris and Phillips at the moment. For stretches of Saturday's game, Harris looked like she was playing the game at a different level than anyone else on the court -- snapping a no-look pass to Phillips from the top of the key, spinning on the baseline and hitting a step-back jumper or draining a 3-pointer from the wing on the game's first possession.
But the 6-foot-5 Harris and 6-foot-6 Phillips are finally casting longer shadows over their teammates -- longer literally than figuratively. With a cast of carefully aligned role players, most notably perhaps the freshman with the quick release and unlimited confidence, they looked Saturday like a team that could play for a long, long time.
"This is the best that we have played in a long time," McGuff allowed. "I'll tell you, I was kind of wondering for how long we could sustain our highest level of play. And, you know, I got a pretty favorable answer today because we played at a high level for most of the game."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.