Melanie Balcomb is in her 11th season as the head coach at Vanderbilt, who meets UConn in the second round of the NCAA tournament tonight. She has led the Commodores to 11 straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
While many opposing coaches come to Gampel Pavilion for the first time during the NCAA tournament, that is not the case for Balcomb. For starters, she was an assistant coach at Providence from 1990-93. She coached against the Huskies when they played at the Field House.
Secondly, Balcomb coached against UConn when she was the head coach at Xavier March 14, 1999. The top-seeded Huskies defeated the eighth-seeded Musketeers 86-84 in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Gampel Pavilion.
It was a game that saw the Musketeers lead by as many as 10 points in each half.
“Obviously, there are signature wins in your career and signature losses,’’ Balcomb said. “That was one of my obvious signature losses. I reflect back on it a lot. I didn’t have to walk into the arena. But when I did
that was the first thing I thought of was that game and being here. It put my program on the map and we lost. I had taken over a program that was not successful and did not go to the postseason. The year before we were in the WNIT and now we were in the 8-9 game and beat FIU. Also we were on national TV and beating UConn for most of the game and then losing the game. Everybody talked about us. We didn’t become a Cinderella team but it put our team on the map.’’
Xavier led 40-36 at halftime. The lead was 57-47 with 16:22 left in the game and 84-78 with 2:16 left. But UConn would rally.
Tamika Williams had 19 points and nine rebounds to lead the Huskies. Shea Ralph added 16 points, five rebounds and six assists.
Kremer had 23 points and six assists in 40 minutes to lead Xavier. She had been 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the game before missing two free throws with 37 seconds left and the game tied 84-84.
“We had every opportunity to win that game and we lost it,’’ Balcomb said. “But we were appreciated by those fans. I got hundreds of e-mails from them saying it was the best game that was ever played here. So it was a devastating moment for me and how I felt for that player and my program, but it was also really rewarding to be appreciated by a fan base that appreciates quality women’s basketball.’’
Williams would make two free throws with seven seconds left to give UConn the win.
“You see the Pavilion on TV all the time but it doesn’t look like it did to me in here,’’ Balcomb said. “And probably the biggest thing that I remember is how we were treated by the UConn fans. It’s very similar now that I’m in Tennessee that they’re great women’s basketball fans. Period. They bleed UConn blue and all that great stuff. But when we worked as hard as we did and played as well as we did and then lost at the end … My point guard who missed the shots was on the ground crying on the floor and Shea Ralph picked her up. I looked up and as we walked off people cheered for us. UConn fans stood up and cheered for us. As I walked out that’s the last memory I have and that will always be in my mind.’’