Defending a title is a hard thing to do.
For the Xavier women’s basketball team (8-14, 3-7 Atlantic 10) the odds of repeating as A-10 champs are slim to none.
The thought was probably never in the team’s itinerary this season, after losing six letterman from last year’s Cinderella squad which reached the Elite Eight of 2001 NCAA Tournament.
This year the Musketeers return one starter in Reetta Piipari, who is averaging 12.5 points per game. Lone senior Shavon Bell (10.1ppg) and junior guard Amy Waugh (14.9 ppg), both reserves last season, are the only players with experience. The rest of the squad consists of five freshman and three sophomores.
“We have young leadership and we just expected them to lead a very young team,” coach Melanie Balcomb said. “They were the support role for the five seniors I had last season. Now we try to tell them they have to take a lot of the leadership role.”
Temple will travel to Xavier this weekend as part of an Ohio roadtrip. Temple plays at Dayton Friday and Xavier Sunday.
Xavier is faced this year with the task of rebuilding. It posted a school-best 31-3 record and rolled past national powerhouse Tennessee in the NCAA Sweet 16 last year.
Nicole Levandusky, Jennifer Phillips and Taru Tuukkanen were the core of last seasons’ A-10 championship squad and accounted for 65 percent of the teams’ scoring. All three were selected in the 2001 WNBA Draft.
“The tough part is we did so well last year that freshman felt they had big shoes to fill and they felt a lot of pressure to live up to [that],” Balcomb said.
But she knew what would be in store for her team this season, despite last year’s success. Xavier has had four separate losing streaks this season, including a stretch of four conference losses to teams they dominated last year.
The price for success has been painful so far for the Musketeers, who had to fulfill a hefty preseason schedule after the national schedule they built up for last season’s squad. The team went 5-7 in and out of conference play this season.
The Musketeers have won the last five meetings against the Owls, but this year’s match up will be much different.
“I know they have so many players returning and have improved so much from last year, and I look for them to be very strong and athletic,” Balcomb said of Temple.
“I’m sure they’re very good defensively, pressuring and trapping and creating a lot of turnovers.
“I know they’re very hungry to win this year so going in against them we know they’re going to be very aggressive and we’re going to have to take care of the basketball. They’re only going to get better.”
That they are.
The Owls have done a complete 180 and have seasoned themselves as being one of the most dominant teams in the conference this season.
It’s ironic how the roles have switched for Xavier and Temple this season. The Musketeers are tumbling through rebuilding and growing pains with a squad full of freshmen, while Temple continues to feed off of its senior leadership.
Temple also has the tools and experience needed to make an A-10 tournament run. And Coach Dawn Staley did a fine job with the non-conference scheduling in facing top caliber opponents.
Temple was 6-6 in those games, while competing at the highest level outside of their environment and comfort zone could help them keep their poise come tournament time.
Still, despite Xavier’s unsuccessful reign, Staley knows that every game counts and in A-10 games, records are often pushed to the side.
“Huge,” said Staley of the Ohio road trip. “I think it’s huge and most important that we take one game at a time and we don’t have a let down like we did at St. Bonaventure. So we have to keep our players focused on one game at a time and see where it takes us.”
Some of the Owls who have been around in the Xavier glory days aren’t sure what to expect this weekend.
“I don’t know who they have anymore,” said senior center Lisa Jakubowicz, who is familiar with the Xavier squads of the past and their dominating frontcourt. “So I guess I’m going to have to take it how I see it.”