SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - This maiden Big East 'voyage' has been anything but serene.
A once-proud program, they had just dropped their twelfth straight game. The record stood at 3-15 in conference play and 8-22 overall. Brian Neal knows the situation is one the school is not accustomed to.
A 62-50 loss at Seton Hall earlier this week came a few days following a narrow setback at the hands of Villanova.
"We had a great chance to win that one," the coach said.
Moral victories, at this school, will not suffice
Resilience wasn't enough for Xavier at Seton Hall
If there was a positive for Xavier at Seton Hall, it was their resilience. But turnovers and poor rebounding did ultimately did them in.
There is pride and tradition surrounding Xavier: two Elite Eight appearances, seven Atlantic Ten titles. 10 times Xavier has gone to the NCAA tournament and captured twenty or more victories. Since the 2003 season entering this year, they have averaged 21 wins a season. The past is impressive. Resumes, however, do not win ballgames.
Neal was named interim coach in October of 2013 following the resignation of Amy Waugh. A month later Athletic Director Greg Christopher scrapped the interim tag and promoted the well-respected coaching veteran as the head coach on a full-time basis.
For Neal it has been a struggle. The Seton Hall game, in that respect, epitomized the year. The Musketeers fell behind by as much as 21 points early in the second half. They gradually fought back to make it a two possession game before the Hall ended the run and sealed the win.
"I couldn't be any prouder of the effort these young ladies have made," Neal said, referring to the campaign in general not just this March evening in South Orange.
The Musketeers are finishing out with a young ball club. Leading scorer Shatyra Hawkes, a Senior guard, was dismissed from the program on February 14 for violation of athletic department rules. The starting five lists two sophomores, two freshman and a senior. Ashley Wanninger, the lone senior, is the active leading scorer hitting for 10.9 points per game from her guard position. Briana Gladney, a freshman guard is the other double digit scorer at 10.1 per outing. Leah Schaeffer, a 6-2 freshman, needs more strength to battle inside. Schaeffer has the potential and showed some nice post moves against Seton Hall.
Neal realizes Xavier has so much going for it. He was an assistant for two seasons prior to being named as interim and then head coach - he knows a great academic and athletic experience are in place. There are excellent facilities and an outstanding fan base. He realizes there is quite a bit of work ahead as the Big East, their new home, offers an excellent conference but significant challenges as well.
"I love the Big East," Neal said. "It is very interesting with multiple styles (of play). Teams are well-rounded at both ends of the floor."
Neal also terms the conference ‘terribly athletic', as in extremely. It is hard to say the style of play Xavier will ultimately employ - youth and lack of depth have severely limited the team. There is something noticeable that Neal plans to keep in tact: the willingness to battle back as they did during that second half at Seton Hall. That is a quality Neal admires. A quality taking precedence over style.