- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Ta'Shia Phillips might play alongside someone with a combination of size and skills rarely seen before in the women's game. She might play the same position as someone turning a page in the sport's evolution. But Phillips isn't built to exist in anyone's shadow, not even teammate Amber Harris or Baylor's Brittney Griner.
Like the paper-and-ink books that accumulate in Phillips' room, waiting to be read page by page rather than button by button by the voracious reader, there is something a little old school about her game and demeanor. And like the best of the books, she's a classic in her own right.
"She's such a great player, and the reason she's such a great player is she's so relentless in how she plays and how she approaches the game," Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. "She's a perfectionist, and she just doesn't let a day go by where she's not trying to get better, not trying to impact our team in a positive way.
"You can just see when she plays, I don't know that there's a post payer in America who plays harder or is more relentless about just being a dominant player."
Unless the world of women's basketball finds itself suddenly flush with a surplus of 6-foot-6 players who go after rebounds the way late-night lawyers chase fender benders, Phillips should have an opportunity to file tax returns as a professional basketball player for a good number of years once her stay at Xavier concludes. But when basketball does eventually run its course and the last rebound has been collected, she will consider putting majors in both entrepreneurship and marketing to use by starting her own business, perhaps a clothing store for people shorter or taller than the norm, those overlooked and underserved by the mainstream market. And if she's looking for investors, well, small things have a way of becoming big successes where Phillips is involved.
These days, the senior center is unquestionably a big deal on the court in Cincinnati. She's second in the NCAA in rebounding this season, averaging 12.4 per game. She's tied for eighth all time in Division I rebounding, and depending on how many games No. 6 Xavier adds to its total through the Atlantic 10 and NCAA tournaments, she could conceivably climb as high as fourth on that list.
Yet when she first joined Kevin Merriweather's AAU team in her hometown of Indianapolis at about 12 years old, the player now playing the Bill Russell role in the college game was the shortest person on the court. It didn't take long for that situation to reverse itself, and for items like a picture of her looking up at teammate and future Notre Dame guard Ashley Barlow to become amusing mementos, but it's worth noting that she didn't learn the game as the biggest kid on the court, the kid able to wait for sheer size to trump skill or effort.
"Usually they say that guards have really great court vision, and I feel like I have that because of that [experience as a smaller player]," Phillips said "I can actually see a lot of things that are going on on the floor, even though I might not be able to see all things all the time. It's really helped with footwork and passing. I don't really dribble much, but it makes it a little easier that I can dribble the ball if I choose to."
She also works the offensive glass like an undersized player who woke up one morning to find herself the recipient of a 6-foot-6 gift from the heavens. In seven postseason games last season, through the Atlantic 10 tournament and a regional final against Stanford in the NCAA tournament, she had 60 offensive rebounds. Xavier's opponents had just 78 during that same stretch. As a sophomore, Phillips had 10 offensive rebounds and 25 total rebounds in a six-point loss at North Carolina. Earlier this season, she had seven offensive rebounds and 19 total rebounds in a one-point loss at Duke.
Phillips' 142 offensive rebounds this season are more than any three other Musketeers combined, and nearly double the individual totals of either Griner or Ohio State's Jantel Lavender. Some of that is because Harris is Xavier's go-to scorer, giving Phillips more of an opportunity than her All-American post peers to get in position for offensive rebounds. But much more of it is a player who works harder and more consistently than almost anyone.
"She is just absolutely relentless on every possession," McGuff said. "She works so hard and she's just so physical and so aggressive. I think certainly she's got some physical gifts, but it's her mentality more than anything that allows her to be a great rebounder."
Of course, while Phillips has hardly gone unnoticed, making the cut for all sorts of award watch lists and landing on Team USA alongside the likes of former Connecticut All-American Tina Charles for the 2009 World University Games, she is routinely viewed as part of a package with Harris. And when one of a pair is a 6-foot-5 player with the ability to beat defenders with a crossover or pull up for a 3-pointer, all the better to set up the big charismatic grin, the other is always going to be in danger of entering Hermione Granger sidekick territory -- especially when the latter player points to a coach's early suggestion to play like a machine as one of the guiding principles of her basketball existence.
"Ta'Shia is, No. 1, very bright, takes her studies very seriously," McGuff said. "She's a fairly serious person, whereas Amber is incredibly lighthearted, laughs at everything, likes to joke about everything. Ta'Shia is a little more serious, a little more focused just on everything. But she does have a very, very funny personality. She's just not going to let it out right away with everybody."
That contrast famously pitted the two against each other when they first became teammates, not at Xavier but nearly a decade ago as Indianapolis youngsters.
"We just didn't really care for each other," Phillips said. "We didn't know how to appreciate each other at the time. When we first met, I was 13, she was 14. We were both tall in different ways, we both had different styles of playing. As everybody knows, Amber and I are opposites, so I was kind of the serious kid. She was the fun-loving kid. And a lot of the times, I would be taking stuff seriously and Amber's laughing. Or something would go wrong and I'd be trying to tell her or somebody else would be trying to tell her and she's laughing, and that would just upset me."
Perhaps rather than meeting in the middle, they've learned to appreciate the view from the other end of the spectrum after four seasons together. One of those was a season (2008-09) when Harris had to watch from the bench with an injury, giving Phillips invaluable experience as the go-to player on her way to earning Atlantic 10 player of the year. Each was good on her own (Harris was a first-team, all-conference selection as a freshman before Phillips arrived). But reunited on the court the past two seasons, they've led Xavier to a 55-6 record.
"I'd rather play with her than without her, and I would hope she would say the same," Phillips said. "It's kind of like it's not two people, really. it's kind of like we're almost one person because she's more of a guard-type post -- she can dribble the ball and she can shoot and she can jump and she's more athletic. Whereas I have the strength, the power, more of an aggressiveness. Those two are kind of brought together when we play with each other and off each other."
Together, the two All-Americans have taken a successful program to an entirely new level of national title contention. And as a result, for every rebound, altered shot and point scored, Phillips deserves to be recognized as one of a kind in her own right.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.