March 19, 2009

The loss of Amber Harris for all of the regular season and an upset loss in overtime in the Atlantic 10 conference final ultimately didn't keep Xavier from being selected to play in its third straight NCAA tournament.

Harris' possible return, though, could help fuel a deep postseason run.

With the status of the high-scoring junior forward still up in the air, the fifth-seeded Musketeers try again for their first NCAA tournament victory since 2001 as they meet No. 12 seed Gonzaga on Saturday night in Seattle.

Harris entered 2008-09 ranked 20th on Xavier's scoring list with 1,039 points and 10th with 598 rebounds. Last season, she was an A-10 first-team selection after scoring a team-high 15.3 points to go along with 8.9 rebounds a game.

But she underwent knee surgery in October and hasn't played competitively since. Though she had practiced the previous two weeks leading up to the conference tournament, coach Kevin McGuff said he saw something that made him continue to hold her out.

Senior guard Jerri Taylor said Harris could contribute even though she hasn't played in 2008-09.

"She is a large part of the team," Taylor said. "She couldn't hurt us, she could definitely help us going in playing against good teams. We don't know her situation, it's still up in the air."

With Harris down, sophomore center Ta'Shia Phillips stepped up her game. The 6-foot-6 center led Xavier (25-6) with 13.5 points and 11.9 rebounds per game and topped the A-10 with 15 double-doubles to win player of the year honors.

The 20th-ranked Musketeers saw their two-year reign as A-10 champions end March 7 with a 63-60 overtime loss to Dayton. Phillips was held to 10 points, but pulled down 19 rebounds.

Now getting ready to make its eighth NCAA tourney appearance, Xavier is 4-0 all-time against West Coast Conference teams.

While Gonzaga (26-6) is perhaps best known for its men's basketball team, the women again proved this season that they're a force as the Bulldogs will participate in their second NCAA tournament in three years thanks to Heather Bowman and Courtney Vandersloot.

Bowman, a junior forward, led the Bulldogs with 19.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Vandersloot, a sophomore guard who was named WCC player of the year, averaged 16.4 points a contest to go along with team highs of 7.4 assists and 35 3-pointers.

Gonzaga was kept out of last season's NCAA tourney after being upset by San Diego in the WCC final. The Bulldogs avenged that loss in this year's championship game by defeating the Toreros 66-55 on March 9.

"The game last year is what really drove us this season," coach Kelly Graves said. "We set a goal this year that it wasn't going to happen. We wanted to win the regular season championship, and we wanted to win the tournament championship. They kept their eyes on the prize all year."

McGuff won't take Gonzaga - winner of five straight WCC regular-season titles - lightly as the schools meet for the first time.

"Gonzaga is a very well-coached team and they've had a lot of success," he said. "They had 26 wins this year, so I know it's going to be a challenge for us."

The winner of this game will face fourth-seeded Pittsburgh or No. 13 seed Montana on Monday.