For Xavier head coach Jennifer Gillom, the decision was easy.
“I’m so glad I did it,” said Gillom. “When I retired [from coaching in the WNBA] and this job came available, I was like, ‘Wow, this must be fate’ and here I am back again.”
Gillom, the former Mercury star and former WNBA head coach, took over the Xavier basketball program in April of 2017 after serving as Gators head coach from 2004-2009 and then as an assistant coach for the 2016-17 season. In her first year back at the helm, Gillom’s Gators are in Wednesday’s AIA 6A championship game.
“I won my state championship as a senior in high school,” said Gillom. “I would love to give the gift of a championship to these seniors.”
Gillom’s basketball resume is packed full of legend. Elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Gillom led the Mercury to the 1998 WNBA Finals and won an Olympic gold medal in 1988. Gillom also served as the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA.
“The experience is something that you cherish,” said Gillom. “The successes that I’ve had, I would definitely like that to translate over to these young women and have them experience what I’ve experienced."
Xavier will play Valley Vista Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.
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“It’s a little stressful,” said senior forward Katie Hassett. “But overall, it’s extremely exciting. We all want this so bad. It’s been our goal since the beginning of the season.”
Senior Montana Oltrogge’s basket in the final seconds lifted the Gators to a 50-48 semifinal win over Millennium last Wednesday, earning the Gators a spot in the state championship game for the first time since 1986.
“People thought we weren’t even going to make the final four,” said Oltrogge. “But we made it to the championship game and proved everybody wrong.”
“After Montana hit that shot, I think I had tears streaming down my face,” said Hassett. “I mean, my heart leapt out of my chest. It was probably the greatest moment of my life.”
A win Wednesday night over Valley Vista would give Xavier its first basketball state championship in school history, an amazing factoid given the school’s wide-spread success in athletics. Xavier currently boasts 134 all-time state championships. Basketball’s been the lone sport the Gators have yet to conquer, a fact not lost on the current Xavier players.
“Respect,” said junior point guard Leilani McIntosh. “We’re doubted a lot because we’re one of the teams here at Xavier that hasn’t won [a state championship].”
“Oh I think that is thee motivation,” said Gillom of her team’s desire to add that elusive basketball state championship. “They’ve been friends a long time and they’ve been talking about it. This is their moment. This is their chance.”
Win or lose Wednesday night, the Xavier program appears to be in good hands with Gillom, whose basketball pedigree comes complete with a warmth and energy that flows throughout her program.
“She’s amazing,” said McIntosh. “She’s like our other mom. She knows what’s best for us.”
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