Xavier's inside game does job on Zags
Musketeers strike from inside and out to advance to Elite Eight to face Stanford
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Amber Harris remembers sitting on the bench last season watching her Xavier teammates make an early exit in the NCAA tournament.
But more importantly, Harris remembers watching Gonzaga celebrate as the Bulldogs ushered out the Musketeers.
"It was hard last year sitting on the bench because I was out," Harris said. "It was tough watching. So this year it was exciting to play against them. They're a good team, so it was exciting to actually get out there and play."
Harris missed last season with a knee injury, but emerged this year as an All-America candidate. While Harris and her teammates swear revenge was not a motivating factor in Saturday's regional semifinal against Gonzaga, it had to feel good beating the Bulldogs 74-56 to advance to the Elite Eight, where the Musketeers will face Stanford on Monday.
"We didn't look at it as a payback thing; we definitely looked at it as feeling of being knocked out in the first round and losing and what that feeling felt like," Xavier center Ta'Shia Phillips said. "And that's what we didn't want to repeat this year."
Harris and Phillips played a big part in Xavier's victory. They dominated the paint, especially in the second half, and kept Gonzaga from getting closer than four after the first few minutes of the second period.
Phillips led all players with 22 points and 14 rebounds, and Harris added 14 and 10. Phillips had a similarly dominant game last season, but the addition of Harris gave an undersized Gonzaga team double trouble.
"It's tough enough to pin on one post player because we're not very big so we have to get help front-side," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. "And now suddenly when there's that second one it really makes it difficult and you've got to scramble. I thought all night long we were just scrambling around to try and make up for that."
Xavier also was helped by the play of guards Special Jennings and Katie Rutan, who combined for 27 points almost exclusively from the perimeter. Midway through the second half, Rutan scored six consecutive points to push the Musketeers' margin to 15, its biggest lead of the game at the time. After that, Gonzaga was never able to close the gap to single digits.
Last season, Xavier starting guard Jerri Taylor was 0-for-11 from the field, including 0-for-9 from 3-point range.
"As good as Ta'Shia, Amber and April Phillips are around the basket, at some point you've got to make some shots and we did that tonight," Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. "In particular, Katie had a great stretch there in the second half that really, I think, put us on a run that put the game away."
After Rutan forced Gonzaga to pay more attention to the perimeter, Phillips and Harris took over inside. They combined for nine of the team's final 15 points, including all but one point in the final 4 minutes, 24 seconds. The duo also combined for five rebounds in that span.
"I though we did OK, I thought we did the best we could, we just got tired," Graves said. "I don't know what else to do. We tried to pressure the perimeter best we could, but like I said, Special had a great night and Rutan comes in and makes some 3s. Maybe some things we weren't expecting tonight."
While Phillips and Harris were dominant for the third consecutive game in this tournament, they know that they'll get their biggest inside test against Stanford on Monday.
The Cardinal boast what many consider to be the second-best inside game in the country behind Connecticut, and it will be the biggest inside lineup the Musketeers have seen all season.
But both Phillips and Harris are eager for the chance to show that the effectiveness of their inside authority isn't limited to matchups against smaller teams.
"Stanford's a good team; I feel we match up well," Ta'Shia Phillips said. "I have much respect for Jayne, especially seeing her this summer for the [U.S. national team] tryouts in Colorado. She's a great player. They have a good team and so it will be fun to finally match up with someone that matches up well with us inside instead of having to chase around shorter people the whole time."
Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.