Harris, Phillips have Xavier in Sweet 16
CINCINNATI -- To say Xavier nearly waited too long Tuesday night against Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament is to undersell the image of the ball grazing off both sides of the rim on Commodores guard Jence Rhoads' baseline follow with one second remaining.
The third-seeded Musketeers weren't only minutes or inches away from watching an otherwise memorable season prematurely spoiled; they were seconds and inches away from such a fate.
Down by 10 points with just more than nine minutes to play, and still down by nine points with just more than four to play, the Musketeers played as one for just long enough to make sure the individual brilliance of Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips didn't go to waste.
Phillips finished with 15 point and 17 rebounds, including 11 offensive boards, her 20th double-double this season. Harris scored 21 points, including the last six points her team scored in the game, capped off by the eventual game-winner with 12 seconds to play.
In the end, the math that mattered most was summed up by Dee Dee Jernigan, a teammate of Harris and Phillips the past two seasons at Xavier and in AAU ball in Indiana before that.
"Having Amber and Ta'Shia, you got at least a 70 percent chance of winning every game," Jernigan said. "That's how I feel about them."
But Tuesday's game sure challenged the equation.
Xavier coach Kevin McGuff nearly proved to be a soothsayer, as much as he wouldn't have wanted to add the title to a growing list of accomplishments that would make him one of the rising young stars of the coaching ranks if not for the fact that he already has nearly 200 wins under his belt.
After men's No. 1 overall seed Kansas lost a stunner to Northern Iowa over the weekend, McGuff handed out copies of an article to his players chronicling both how valiantly the Jayhawks played in making a late comeback but how differently the game might have gone if they had played with that passion before digging themselves a hole.
"I just really wanted to drive home the point of win, lose or draw, we're going to play as hard as we can," McGuff said. "We're going to compete for 40 minutes, and that's what's going to be necessary for us to be successful in here in March."
It seemed, during the game's first 30 minutes, that the Musketeers had forgotten the lesson. Vanderbilt was the team executing with precision and playing together. Time and again, Rhoads drove only lightly opposed into the lane in transition, finishing or setting up shots. Time and again, undersized post Hannah Tuomi got rebounds or finished chances in the post. At best, the Musketeers looked disjointed. At worst, they looked flat.
How does anyone explain that kind of lull in the biggest game of the season?
"I think if we knew that, we'd all write a book and we'd get out of this game and do some consulting," assistant coach Mike Neighbors said. "I think our intensity was there. I think we had some nerves maybe. I think the anticipation of expectations -- all those things -- that can cause you to come out that way. But I tell you what, [Vanderbilt] played great, and they hit tough shot after tough shot after tough shot."
The one constant was Phillips, but then again, the one constant is always Phillips. As her teammates struggled to collective 25 percent shooting in the first half, Phillips hit four of her five shots. She had nine points and six offensive rebounds in the first half, six points and five offensive rebounds in the second half. Almost always the biggest player on the court, Phillips takes more than her fair share of pounding in the post.
"She is one of those kids that gets it," Neighbors said. "She gets the total picture. She understands every possession. I'm going to tell you, that kid hasn't taken a play off all year.
"You don't get 11 offensive rebounds without trying every time. It's just not mathematically possible. She goes every time. She takes zero plays off in practice. She takes zero plays off in the game. She doesn't take one rep off in the weight room. That's what makes her special. She has to outwork people, and she does."
And finally, the momentum started to swing. Jernigan hit a few shots and hit the boards; on the day, she was the only Xavier player other than Phillips or Harris to hit at least half her shots. Freshman Katie Rutan traded 3-pointers with Rhoads, the two combining for four in the span of 70 seconds as the Musketeers tried to trim the double-digit deficit. And coming out of a timeout with 3:55 to play, after another Rutan 3-pointer had closed the gap to six, Harris took over.
"There was just a change; I'm telling you, you could see it in their eyes, especially that one's," Neighbors said of Harris as she walked past in the locker room. "She just gets this look. She got it. She got that look."
Multiple people talked about "the look," Neighbors, Jernigan and Phillips all using the exact phrase to describe Harris in those final four minutes of play.
Harris might not be Baylor freshman Brittney Griner in terms of revolutionizing the game, but as a 6-foot-5 hybrid who is equally at home backing down smaller players in the post or handling the ball on the perimeter, she is -- if not unique in the college game -- then one of only a small handful of players with such a diverse skill set.
"Amber can do so much," Phillips said earlier in the weekend. "And sometimes there's a lot of things that she doesn't do, that she doesn't show, that she's capable of. But I really feel like if she's challenged, she might pull them out of her bag. So you can't scout her. You can't say, 'She's going to do this, she's going to do that,' because you just never know."
And she used all her tricks to finally give Xavier the lead, finishing close to the rim on a break and backing down smaller opponents before finishing soft turnarounds in the post. The look might not be there for 40 minutes yet -- it might be asking too much of anyone to hold that level for an entire game -- but it's there when it's needed most.
"She's always been that way, since we've played together," Phillips said of her teammate's penchant for the clutch. "Amber loves big games like that. She loves a challenge. That's when she thrives the most, is when she has a challenge."
The clock nearly ran out on Xavier. But with Harris and Phillips around, the Musketeers had just enough time for a memorable escape.
"I think there's always time," Harris said. "There's no time when the clock has ran out. When the clock is done, it's done. But if there's time on the clock, it's time to go."
All the way to Sacramento.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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