Balcomb has been here before

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb gestures to her team during the second half of Saturday's NCAA women's basketball tournament game against St. Joseph's at Storrs. Vanderbilt plays UConn in the second round tonight at Gampel Pavilion.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb gestures to her team during the second half of Saturday's NCAA women's basketball tournament game against St. Joseph's at Storrs. Vanderbilt plays UConn in the second round tonight at Gampel Pavilion. Jessica Hill/AP photo

Storrs - Observers of women's basketball, informed and otherwise, would agree on the likelihood that the UConn women get to the Sweet 16 tonight without headache or heartburn.

But then, they'd have said the same thing the last time Melanie Balcomb brought one of her teams into Gampel Pavilion. And it turned into the only time the Huskies' streak of 19 straight trips to the Sweet 16 has been jeopardized.

Balcomb, who has moved on to Vanderbilt, brings the Commodores to Gampel tonight (7 p.m., ESPN2). But it was 14 years ago that she was the coach at Xavier, likely as large of an underdog as Vanderbilt is tonight, and nearly pulled one of the great upsets in tournament history.

Tamika Williams made the late free throws for UConn that Xavier's Nikki Kremer couldn't make for her team and UConn escaped, 86-84.

"There are signature wins in your career and signature losses," Balcomb said. "That was one of my signature losses. I reflect back on it a lot and I didn't have to walk back into the arena, but when I did (Friday), that was the first thing I thought of. You see the Pavilion on TV all of the time, but it doesn't look like it looked to me in here."

Vandy (21-11) plays a lot like Balcomb's old Xavier teams did: methodical and well coached. It should be noted that the following season (2000) Xavier knocked out Tennessee in the Sweet 16.

"What I remember (about the UConn loss) is how we were treated by UConn's fans," she said. "It is very similar to going to Tennessee in that they are great women's basketball fans, period. They bleed UConn blue.

"My point guard (Kremer), who missed the shots was on the floor crying and Shea Ralph picked her up, and I looked up and as we walked off, people cheered for us. UConn fans stood up and cheered for us. That's the last memory that I have and that will always be in my mind.

"We had every opportunity to win that game and we lost it, but we were appreciated by those fans and I got hundreds of emails from fans saying it was one of the best games that was ever played here. It was a devastating moment for me, how I felt for that player and that program, but also very rewarding to be appreciated by a fan base that appreciates quality women's basketball."

Vanderbilt is consistently among the nation's leaders in field goal percentage. Among its best wins this season was a 61-51 victory over Texas A&M.

"Being that a lot of the teams in the SEC are top-25, we play teams like UConn all of the time with the crowd being huge, the atmosphere being crazy, and the environment intense," Balcomb said. "I think the SEC has prepared us for what we are going to face. I don't think it will be anything we haven't faced before being we played Tennessee, we played Texas A&M, Georgia, Kentucky, teams that bring that atmosphere. I don't think the atmosphere is going to be anything that is new to us."

But it sure was 14 years ago.

"It put my program on the map and we lost," Balcomb said. "We didn't become the Cinderella team, but it put our team on the map. We got attention, exposure and got talked about in more respectable places that we hadn't before."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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