March 23, 2010
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CINCINNATI (AP) -- Vanderbilt point guard Jence Rhoads watched video of Xavier's first-round win in the NCAA tournament on Monday morning and was taken aback by what happened around the basket.
Six-foot-5 Amber Harris drove for reverse layups and pulled up for sweet jumpers, piling up a season-high 31 points. Six-foot-6 Ta'Shia Phillips toughed it out in the scrums under the boards, dropping in 23 points and grabbing 21 rebounds.
The numbers were eye-opening.
"They're BIG," Rhoads said, her brown eyes widening for emphasis.
How Vanderbilt (23-10) handles the Musketeers' dynamic duo will be the main subplot to their second-round game Tuesday on Xavier's home court. If Harris and Phillips have their way again, Xavier (28-3) could be moving on to the round of 16 for the first time in nine years.
Two players who sat out last year's NCAA tournament with injuries will have a lot to do with how it turns out.
Six-foot forward Hannah Tuomi broke her left foot late last season, forcing her to miss tournament time. She was a spectator as the Commodores got knocked out in the round of 16 for the second straight season.
Early this season, the Commodores were more of a perimeter team -- Rhoads is All-SEC and Merideth Marsh holds the school record for 3-pointers -- while Tuomi (TWA'-me) regained her strength and her feel for the game. She and 6-foot freshman Tiffany Clarke are Vanderbilt's two tallest starters.
"It definitely took a while because even after the injury and after the surgery, it was difficult to get the strength back, and definitely the confidence," Tuomi said. "An injury like that is detrimental to your confidence."
Now a year removed from the injury, Tuomi is back in form. She gave the sixth-seeded Commodores an invaluable inside scoring option during their 83-76 overtime win over DePaul in the first round.
Coach Melanie Balcomb can tell with one look that she's back to normal.
"Just watching her down the stretch, we've become a better team because we have her presence inside," Balcomb said. "Her face has changed. I usually can tell in their faces, their confidence and calmness. She's smiling a lot more."
So is Harris, the Atlantic 10 player of the year who missed all last season following surgery on her left knee. She had hoped to be ready for the NCAA tournament, but wasn't quite up to it. She got frustrated watching from the bench as Xavier lost in the opening round for the third year in a row.
Midway through this season, Harris started playing back to form, slashing through defenses for layups or jumpers. Though 6-foot-5, she plays like a point guard, making her the toughest matchup on the court for most teams.
Against East Tennessee State, she made sure there would not be another first-round flameout. The Lady Bucs blocked her first shot, which only made her more determined to have a big game.
"I don't like getting my shot blocked," she said. "It really pumps me up, gets me going. It shouldn't happen."
Her response to the block?
"I just went off," she said.
Third-seeded Xavier suffered a setback in the closing minutes of the win over ETSU. Starting sophomore guard Tyeasha Moss landed awkwardly on her left leg at the end of a fastbreak. Coach Kevin McGuff said Monday that Moss has a sprained knee rather than a season-ending tear. She's second on the team with 44 3-pointers. Her availability for the second-round game is uncertain.
To reach the round of 16, the Musketeers will have to beat the coach who got them there the last time. Balcomb led Xavier to the round of eight in 2001, then moved to Vanderbilt a year later. It's her first trip back to the Cintas Center and her first time coaching against her former team.
Balcomb got reacquainted with a lot of friends over the weekend -- some of her former Xavier players were in the stands -- but so much has changed in the last eight years that it was almost like just another second-round game.
"It's about the people, not the place," Balcomb said. "When I was here, it was a great place and I have great memories. But they are just memories."
With another one in the making.