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Originally published Saturday, March 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Gonzaga women facing big challenge inside

Seated in the locker room at Edmundson Pavilion, Ta'Shia Phillips looked unassuming. But once the 6-foot-6 Xavier center rose to her feet...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seated in the locker room at Edmundson Pavilion, Ta'Shia Phillips looked unassuming.

But once the 6-foot-6 Xavier center rose to her feet, it was quickly understood why Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves had to dust off his sneakers to practice with his team this week.

Phillips, the Atlantic 10 player of the year, has arms and legs sculpted with muscles, and in action she makes the timid run scared.

And she enjoys it.

"She presents herself as tough and rough, but she's really a nice person," Musketeers point guard Special Jennings said. "She's not as big as she seems."

Until there's a rebound to grab. Phillips' 15 double-doubles this season led Graves to don his gym shorts to get his Zags ready for the physical play in the teams' NCAA women's basketball tournament first-round game tonight.

"I don't get a chance to play very often, but when you play a person like Ta'Shia Phillips, the only person on our staff or team that can somewhat be like her is me," said Graves, who is 6-5 and 220 pounds. "The bad side of that is, I'm not very good. Certainly not as good as Ta'Shia so, I don't know how much I could simulate her game.

"I'm a little beat up, to tell the truth. I got knocked around, and the shoulder is a little stiff."

Post play will be the highlight of tonight's matchup between the 12th-seeded Zags and the No. 5 Musketeers. Phillips averaged 13.6 points, on 61.3 percent shooting, and 11.6 rebounds this season, and is a big reason the Musketeers held opponents to 53.1 points this season.

Zags junior Heather Bowman knows the kind of task she's facing. The 6-2 forward has experience playing against taller front lines, including Gonzaga's win over then-No. 15 Virginia 69-62 in November and a 77-58 loss to then-No. 8 Tennessee in December.

"I have to do my work early," said Bowman, Gonzaga's leading scorer at 19.5. "I have to be physical and be there fundamentally. I might be a little bit more concerned on the defensive end just because I think it will be easier on offense to use my quickness and try to get moves around her.

"But it's going to be a huge challenge."

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And the challenge may not end with Phillips. Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said he's going to decide after shoot-around if he'll suit up 6-5 junior forward Amber Harris, who is the program's all-time shot blocker (222). She missed the entire season due to a left knee injury.

Harris says she's 80 percent healthy and has been cleared to play the past month, but McGuff is cautious. If she does play, it'll be off the bench and with limited minutes.

"If I come out to play, we're going to have to win," said Harris, whose team has made eight tournament appearances but hasn't advanced past the opening round since 2001. "If we lose, I messed up and wasted a whole season. I want to get out there for a reason.

"I can run up and down, but I'm not consistent like I was last year. It takes time."

Bowman, who'll get help inside from 6-foot forward Vivian Frieson, is familiar with Harris, having faced her in AAU games in high school.

"It was the same situation," Bowman remembered. "I was their biggest player and we gave them a run. I can look back on the game and somewhat remember what it was like to play against her."

Xavier (25-6) is undefeated in four games against the West Coast Conference, but has never faced Gonzaga (26-6), which won a fifth consecutive regular-season conference title. With strong guard play on both sides, the matchup could be better than the seedings suggest.

Then again, there's Phillips.

"We're really intense," she said. "We take everything seriously and definitely know what it is that we've come to do. But when we get a few minutes to ourselves, we try to make light of it and have a little fun. Because that's what it's about — having fun and getting the job done."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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