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November 22, 2010
After coming heartbreakingly close to the Final Four last season, Xavier seniors and longtime friends Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips will do whatever it takes to win a national title in Indianapolis, the city where they grew up
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November 22, 2010

Bringing It All Back Home

After coming heartbreakingly close to the Final Four last season, Xavier seniors and longtime friends Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips will do whatever it takes to win a national title in Indianapolis, the city where they grew up

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Harris could have given up her final year of eligibility to enter last April's WNBA draft, where she was projected to be a top five pick. (She sat out the 2008--09 season recovering from microfracture surgery on her left knee.) But the heartbreaking end to last season nagged at her. With the game against Stanford in the Sacramento regional final tied at 53, the Musketeers missed two wide-open layups in the final 12 seconds, leaving the door open for the Cardinal's Jeanette Pohlen to take an inbounds pass with 4.4 seconds left and dash coast-to-coast for the winning basket.

"We were so close," Harris says. "For me to leave without trying to go further wouldn't be right." Perhaps she also wasn't ready to part with a teammate who is more important to her than she's willing to admit.

Phillips started playing basketball when she was nine, but she didn't find her passion for the game until three years later, when she got knocked into a padded wall by an older AAU teammate. "I didn't realize you could hit people like that," says Phillips. "That changed my attitude about the game. I vowed that from then on I would be the one giving the hits."

Like Phillips, Harris started playing in a youth league in fourth grade and was slow to embrace the game. "When other kids were running down the court, she was trotting," says Briggette. In seventh grade Harris joined the Family. Her defining moment came soon after, when Shalicia Hurns, an older 6'3" slasher who would play at Purdue and Rutgers, blew past her with a dazzling crossover. "Amber couldn't believe anyone that height could dribble like that," says Family coach Kevin Merriweather. "Next thing you know, Amber's in the corner, dribbling by herself, becoming a ballhandler."

As the two future Miss Indiana Basketballs (Harris in '06, Phillips in '07) developed their respective signature skills—rebounding for Phillips, blocking for Harris—under Merriweather, they eyed each other warily. "We didn't like each other at first," recalls Harris. "My impression of her was that she was big and strong and mean."

In truth Harris appreciates Phillips's aggressiveness and willingness to do the dirty work in the paint. "I hate guarding her in practice," says Harris. "I'm strong, but I really have to work to push her out of the post. Most of the time I foul her."

Phillips, meanwhile, admires Harris's off-the-chart athleticism. "Amber is a basketball freak of nature," she says. "She can jump high, she can score whenever she wants to. It's almost like she can turn it on like a light switch." The two have come to rely so much on the other's strengths, says Phillips, that "it's sometimes hard to function without the other."

The back-to-back signings of Harris and Phillips, Xavier's first McDonald's All-Americans, were huge coups for McGuff, who envisions the Jesuit school with an enrollment of 6,966 becoming the Gonzaga of women's basketball: the model mid-major program that is high-major in every way except for the conference it plays in. In most respects the program is there: The 10,250-seat Cintas Center is one of the nicest on-campus facilities in the country, and the Muskies' nonconference schedule, which includes road games at South Carolina, Duke and Stanford this year, is among the nation's toughest.

Moreover, the Muskies have been to four straight NCAA tournaments, though last year's Elite Eight run represented the first NCAA wins in McGuff's eight-year tenure. Harris and Phillips will be complemented by a solid perimeter that includes sophomore three-point sharpshooter Katie Rutan, the team's third-leading scorer last year, and 5'6" senior point guard Special Jennings, a quick and crafty former youth football quarterback from Cleveland. Adding depth to the post will be 6'1" redshirt sophomore Amber Gray, a 2008 McDonald's All-American at Lakota West High in suburban Cincinnati who sat out the 2009--10 season at Tennessee while recovering from a stroke suffered after rotator-cuff surgery. The stroke was caused by a ruptured brain aneurysm, which took a Cincinnati surgical team 12½ hours to repair. When doctors in Knoxville declined to clear her to play last summer, Gray transferred. In October she was granted medical clearance by Xavier and a waiver by the NCAA, which allows her to play right away. But Gray, whose initial rehab included learning to walk again, isn't yet back to her high school form. "I want her to take a long-term approach and not get too frustrated, because she does get frustrated some days," says McGuff.

Perhaps Gray, like Brenda and Briggette, will find comic relief in the frequent flare-ups between Harris and Phillips. If Gray hasn't already, she'll soon realize "all that 'I can't stand you' stuff is an act," as Jennings says. "Ta'Shia is totally serious, Amber is goofy, but they know each other and they know how to talk to each other."

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