CINCINNATI — Amber Harris went up with the ball cradled in her right hand, ready to throw down a breakaway dunk. The ball rattled around and flew out, drawing a collective "aah!" from the crowd.
It was one of the few things the 6-foot-5 forward missed.
Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips each had a double-double, and No. 5 Xavier extended the best start in its history, beating Mississippi State 61-36 on Friday night behind tight defense and its frontcourt duo.
The Musketeers (10-0) struggled to score from the perimeter against the Lady Bulldogs (6-3), who came in with one of the nation's top defenses, allowing 51.2 points per game. Harris took control midway through the first half and finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds. Phillips had 13 points and 15 rebounds.
"Amber and Ta'Shia set the tone around the basket and certainly gave them a lot of problems," coach Kevin McGuff said. "They both played really well."
Not right away. Harris missed her first three shots, rushing one of them.
"I just had to calm down a little bit," she said. "After the first three shots, I just decided to calm down and play my game and get back into it."
She hardly missed the rest of the way, making 10 of her last 12 shots. One of those two misses was that fastbreak dunk attempt with 5:16 to go and Xavier in control.
"They keep talking about it," Harris said of her teammates. "They want to get on ESPN, so I'm trying to get on ESPN. It slipped off my fingers as I was going up. It just rattled. Next time it's going flush."
There will be a next time. McGuff has given her the go-ahead to keep trying.
"I look at that shot like I look at any other shot," McGuff said. "If you demonstrate in practice that you can make it, go ahead. She's done it plenty of times in practice, so she does have the green light."
Xavier got its top 3-point shooter back in a limited role. Sophomore Katie Rutan missed the last six games after landing awkwardly on her left foot, spraining the ankle. For the last six games, she sat on the bench in street clothes and a protective boot.
Rutan came off the bench and played a few minutes at a time. She made her first shot — a 3 from the left wing — and missed her other attempt, finishing with three points in 12 minutes overall.
"Oh, it felt great, I'm not going to lie," she said. "It was so hard to sit there the last six games."
Rutan, who set a school record for 3s by a freshman last season, had been limited to working out in a pool. She practiced the last two days and came through her return to the court without problem.
"She's practice and looked good," McGuff said. "We just wanted to give her plenty of rest. I think we've done that. It's good to have her back. It just helps us be a deeper team, which I think is going to be a real strength as the season goes."
Mary Kathryn Govero scored 16 points for Mississippi State, which shot a season-low 22 percent from the field. The Lady Bulldogs had more turnovers (15) than baskets (13).
Junior point guard Diamber Johnson leads the Lady Bulldogs at 13.4 points per game, but couldn't find an open shot. Guarded tightly by Special Jennings, she missed all of her seven shots in the first half, when Xavier pulled ahead by as many as 15, and her first two in the second half.
Johnson finished 3 of 14 from the field, matching her season low with six points.
"I thought we took a really positive step tonight with our defense," McGuff said. "Until this point, I haven't been really satisfied with how we've been playing on the defensive end. Hopefully that's a sign of things to come."Comment on this story
Xavier struggled at the outset against a defense that sagged inside to try to prevent Phillips and Harris from taking control. Rutan came off the bench and made her 3, sparking an 11-0 run and made it 15-4.
Phillips and Harris took it from there, combing to score Xavier's final 14 points of the half. Xavier led 29-19 at the break, when Phillips already had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Harris got a long rebound and passed inside to Phillips for an open layup that made it 35-23 early in the second half. At that point, the frontcourt duo had 24 points combined — one more than all the Lady Bulldogs.