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It happens at least once every game. Briggette Jemison-Boyd and Brenda Phillips will be sitting together at a Xavier's basketball game, watching their daughters, Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, who have played together since middle school. Suddenly, there'll be an errant shot, a muffed blockout or a missed rebound, and one daughter will be in the other's face like a coach gone ballistic. "Everyone in the stands will be like, What is wrong with those two?" says Jemison-Boyd. "Brenda and I will just look at each other and laugh. Sure enough, 30 seconds later Amber and Ta'Shia are hugging each other."
Good friends since their daughters started playing together in the Family AAU program in Indianapolis nine years ago, Brenda and Briggette have traveled together, dined together and cheered together as their daughters have helped build Xavier, the small Jesuit school in Cincinnati, into a national title contender. Neither mom can recall a single argument between them. Their daughters, on the other hand....
"Ta'Shia had me in a headlock today," Harris, a 6'5" fifth-year senior forward, reports matter-of-factly after a practice in mid-October. "But it's O.K. She was just playing around. Sort of."
Xavier coach Kevin McGuff describes the pair's dynamic as "a love-love-love-love-love-hate relationship. They're like sisters. Ta'Shia can get on Amber, but no one else can."
For Phillips, it's all about expectations. "I expect a lot out of her, she expects a lot out of me," says the 6'6" senior center. "If we're not getting it from each other, we argue, we yell. And two seconds later it's back to normal."
"Normal" is a steady flow of production from the sometimes disputatious duo, who combined for 30 points, more than 20 rebounds and nearly four blocks a game last year as Xavier came within two points of becoming the first women's mid-major program to make the Final Four since Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State) in 2001. If improving on Xavier's Elite Eight performance in 2010, a 55--53 loss to Stanford, isn't motivation enough, Harris and Phillips have an added incentive to take their team further: The Final Four will be in their hometown of Indianapolis.
That's where they grew up, attended high schools four miles apart and first discovered they are nothing alike.
They are teammates, they are roommates. But soulmates? "Never," says Phillips. They have different friends and different academic interests—Harris, 22, has earned one degree in liberal arts and is working on a second in criminal justice, while Phillips, 21, who completed an entrepreneurial studies degree in three years, is retaking a few classes before starting on her MBA. And though they share an apartment, they stick to their respective rooms, where Phillips tends to her plants and reads her books and Harris plays her video games and roots for whatever NBA team LeBron James is playing for. "It's not that we have 'issues,'" explains Phillips. "Our personalities are just so different. Amber is outgoing, she finds a lot of things really funny. I'm more of a serious, quiet person. A lot of times when she is laughing about something, I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? This is not funny! Stop laughing!' But she can't help it. That's how she is, and that's how I am."
They're also radically different on the court. Phillips is an old-school, back-to-the-basket enforcer with a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook and a nose for rebounds. (Her 1,156 career boards is a school record.) The Atlantic 10's player of the year in 2009 and the defensive player of the year in '10, Phillips last season averaged 11.7 rebounds per game (fourth in the nation) and 13.9 points on 62.4% shooting (also fourth in the nation). "If you're going to play against Ta'Shia around the basket, you're in for a war, every night," says McGuff. "She works really hard early to get great position, and she does all the right things. She puts a lot of thought and effort into everything she does."
When Phillips screws up on the court, she growls in frustration. Harris, on the other hand, laughs at her own mistakes. Carefree, easily amused and "light, light, light," says McGuff, the lean and lanky Harris moves with an easy grace that could be misinterpreted as nonchalance. Last year she averaged 16.1 points and 8.9 rebounds and pushed her school-record career blocks mark to 289—in second place is Phillips, with 158—on her way to earning A-10 player of the year and State Farm All-America honors. She can shoot the three (42.4%), lead the break and play any position in a pinch. "She is the closest thing our game has to Kevin Durant," says Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.