While others wait, Phillips works
They all watch and wait, wondering where it will go and whether a rebound will come their way.
On a rare occasion, you might see one solitary figure who doesn't want to wait, a player who can't wait to get to the ball. She is already on the move while the rest stand still. She's not wondering, she's calculating and anticipating. She knows that while most players are willing to work hard before the shot goes up, they don't work after the shot is on its way, thinking it's out of their hands and beyond their control.
And it's at that precise moment that Xavier sophomore Ta'Shia Phillips stands out. While the others wait, she works.
It's an attitude that has helped the 6-foot-6 sophomore develop into one of the top young posts in the country. Phillips' skill set is a big reason Xavier is the favorite to win the Atlantic 10 conference. And she's a big reason the Musketeers carry the banner of "non-BCS team to watch" this year.
In 2007-08, Phillips led all freshmen in the nation with 18 double-doubles; she is averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds this season.
Just ask the second-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels about Phillips' work ethic. Back in November in Chapel Hill, Phillips put on a clinic as the Musketeers put a scare into the Heels before falling 73-67.
"We did what we had to do to win," Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said after the game. "But the rebounds are ridiculous. We need some rebounding practice."
Phillips hauled in 25 rebounds, tying the Dean Dome record held by former Tar Heels great Sean May. Ten of 25 were offensive boards, which almost single-handedly matched the entire UNC team in that category. Phillips also scored 23 points.
"That was a really big game for us," said Phillips, the 2007-08 A-10 rookie of the year. "It was adverse conditions in there, but we felt good and I just got in a flow. I was having fun and that's the key. I just wish we would have won."
The Musketeers came close, and Phillips left a lasting impression on Hatchell, whose teams are usually the ones handing out backboard beat downs.
"[Phillips] backs you down inside and gets position," Hatchell said postgame. "She's got really good hands, she reads well she's so strong physically."
Phillips agrees that her strength is what sets her apart, mentally and physically. But it's a strength grown out of weakness. Phillips played all of last season with a torn labrum in her shoulder. The injury limited her physically and took away some of her gifts. But the adversity only made her stronger, and now she's completely healthy.
"It was a very difficult experience," admitted Phillips, who had to play with a brace wrapped around her torso, limiting her range of motion. "But it became a great learning experience. I was told not many people could play with that injury. But I wanted to play through the pain to help the team. It was frustrating at times, but I learned my limits and learned that I could push through them."
She did more than push, she pulled down impressive statistics. As a freshman, she was the sixth-best rebounder in the country, setting a Xavier record with 11.2 boards per game. The latest NCAA stats show Phillips at No. 7 nationally this season, and she's averaging 13.8 points and 11.9 rebounds through 18 games for Xavier (14-4).
"I was able to overcome adversity and that's made me mentally tougher this year," said Phillips, who is on the Naismith Trophy and Wooden watch lists for national player of the year honors. "I have the mental toughness to overcome whatever comes my way in life. I discovered that you can always find a little more within yourself when you need it."
This season, an injury to frontcourt mate Amber Harris has forced Phillips to find a little more. Harris is sidelined indefinitely while she rehabs her knee following offseason surgery. That means Phillips has a bigger load to carry while getting even more attention from opponents.
"When Amber got hurt, Ta'Shia stepped up her game," said coach Kevin McGuff, the all-time wins leader at Xavier. "We needed her to be at a higher level and she made a conscious decision to get there. Now we just have to make sure she doesn't get worn out. She works so hard and competes on every possession, so we try to watch her minutes."
McGuff says Phillips has developed into a better passer this season, a skill that has opened up the floor for the other Musketeers.
Point guard Special Jennings has emerged as the leader and floor general. Shooter Jerri Taylor (10.5 ppg) knocked down seven 3-pointers in a win over Michigan State this season. Rutgers transfer Tudy Reed (10.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg) has a 31-point performance to her credit, and another Rutgers transfer, Dee Dee Jernigan (4.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), provides a spark off the bench.
Junior April Phillips (no relation to Ta'Shia) has taken over for Harris and has been one of the squad's most consistent players, averaging 7.6 points and 8.2 rebounds. With everybody healthy, Xavier's roster boasts four high school all-Americans.
Harris -- a 6-5 forward who averaged 15.3 points and 8.9 rebounds last season -- is not yet practicing with the team, but she has started individual workouts again. She says she has no plans to redshirt and appears willing to play however many games she can.
"If we can get Amber back in February, this would be the most talented team heading into March that we've had in my seven years here," said McGuff, who assisted on Notre Dame's national championship team in 2001. "Ta'Shia is critical. I saw what Ruth Riley did for Notre Dame. Ta'Shia's style is different, but they share the intangibles of a strong work ethic, coachability and a player teammates love to be around."
And McGuff understands that defense and rebounding are the keys to triggering a deep postseason run. Phillips provides both.
"The first thing we do to start the season is hold a players-only meeting," Phillips said. "We set goals to hold opponents to 34 percent shooting and we want a plus-8 rebound margin."
To date, opponents are shooting just 32 percent and Xavier is outrebounding the opposition by a plus-9 margin. Phillips gives credit to the upperclassmen for setting the tone and following through.
"Our seniors are so important, and they have a great influence on this team," said Phillips, who recently shared a team dinner with them at coach McGuff's house. "They came up with comparisons for us who we played like as a person. They said I was like Shaq, old-school Shaq when he was at his best. I'll take that."
Phillips is also a big fan of U.S. Olympic gold medalists Tamika Catchings and Lisa Leslie. Both were collegiate All-Americans who scored more than 2,000 points and grabbed 1,000 rebounds in their careers. Phillips is on pace to flirt with those numbers before she's done at Xavier.
"I like the heart and the fight of Catchings," said Phillips, an Indianapolis native who has watched Catchings' pro career with the Fever. "That's how I want to compete. And I like the finesse and professionalism of Leslie. She's all business out there."
Which brings us back to the business of being one of the game's most ambitious rebounders. Broad shoulders can carry great weight. Phillips is ready for the challenge, and already has helped Xavier to a 4-0 mark against the SEC this season. In those games, Phillips anchored a defense which allowed an average of just 44 points per game and owned the boards (12 per contest).
"Rebounding is all mental and having that work ethic," she said. "You have to push yourself; it's all about the effort and getting that edge. Don't wait for the ball to come off the rim. I watch it in the air, move as the ball is moving, read and react. I want to go get it while the others sit and wait."
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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