Vanderbilt coach helped build Xavier's program
Coach Melanie Balcomb and her black-suited Vanderbilt players walked out of the bright, morning sunshine into the shaded back loading dock of the Cintas Center, a place most of them were entering for the first time.
Not Balcomb. A decade ago, she got the building - and Xavier's program - off the ground.
She had many great moments in the 10,250-seat arena that is the home court for Xavier's nationally prominent women's and men's basketball teams. On Saturday, she was back at a place that was tough to leave.
``I knew it would be difficult to come back,'' Balcomb said. ``I have great memories here.''
Balcomb took the Musketeers to the Elite Eight during the arena's opening season in 2001, the best NCAA tournament run in school history. She has returned with Vanderbilt (22-10), which plays DePaul (2-11) in the first round on Sunday.
The fifth-ranked Musketeers (27-3) play East Tennessee State (23-8) in the later game, looking for their first NCAA tournament win since that 2001 season. They've lost in the first round each of the last three years.
``Our history - we got put out the past three years,'' said Amber Harris, the Atlantic 10's player of the year. ``But we're not thinking about that. We're just thinking about right now.''
Just like Balcomb.
The Musketeers are 0-4 in the tournament since that 2001 run under Balcomb. That's one of the final breakthroughs left for a team that has accumulated them all season.
Xavier became only the second A-10 team to go undefeated in the regular season and win the conference tournament, too. The Musketeers' No. 5 ranking is the highest ever for a Xavier men's or women's team. Their No. 3 seed in the tournament also is the best yet.
The university wanted to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, knowing it had a special team coming along that could make the most of home-court advantage.
``They have a real sense of 'our time is now,' and I think you're going to see them play incredibly hard,'' coach Kevin McGuff said. ``It's been fun to see them grow this year, and this is their moment and I think they're ready for it.''
They have a pronounced front-line advantage against East Tennessee State, which is 0-2 in the tournament. The 14th-seeded Lady Bucs don't have a player taller than 6-foot-3, which presents a problem trying to guard Ta'Shia Phillips - Xavier's 6-foot-6 career rebound leader - and the Harris, a 6-foot-5 forward who plays like a guard.
``Ta'Shia is probably going to see a lot of people tomorrow because we're going to surround her,'' coach Karen Kemp said.
Last year, Harris tried to return for the tournament after knee surgery wiped out her regular season. The knee wasn't up to it, so she had to sit and watch.
She's at full strength - and inspired - to help Xavier get over that first-round wall.
``It was hard to watch last year, and this year it will be different because I'm healthy now and I feel really good, really excited about it,'' she said.
Balcomb built the foundation for Xavier to get to this point. Xavier's win over Tennessee during the 2001 tournament was noticed by Vanderbilt, which hired her a year later. McGuff has coached Xavier to five NCAA appearances in his eight years, taking the program to unprecedented heights.
Balcomb does a lot of recruiting in the Cincinnati area - two of her players are from the town - but had been back to the Cintas Center only once since she left, for the Hall of Fame induction of a former player. She felt at home on Saturday in an arena she helped fashion.
``This is like building my first house,'' she said. ``We got to design everything. Now we've done the same thing at Vanderbilt. It was a learning experience as a coach and an interior designer. It was a great experience for my next job. I use those experiences on and off the court to help me at Vanderbilt.''
DePaul has a streak of eight straight NCAA tournament appearances, one that was in danger after the Blue Demons were blown out by Connecticut and Notre Dame in mid-February. They won five of their last six and got a No. 11 seed.
``At that point in time, we basically had to win the rest of our games,'' junior forward Felicia Chester said. ``Each game we would say we were fighting for our NCAA lives.''