Xavier basketball shines in new home

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA -- Xavier University's Whitney Gaston-Loyd shoots against Loyola on Wednesday at Xavier University's Convocation Center in New Orleans.
Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZA -- Xavier University's Whitney Gaston-Loyd shoots against Loyola on Wednesday at Xavier University's Convocation Center in New Orleans.

Xavier basketball looks golden in sparkling new arena

NEW ORLEANS — Every time SiMon Franklin steps onto the court at Xavier University’s new, $25 million Convocation Academic Center, she feels grateful for every cent — the majority of them from the private sector — that went into designing and constructing the palatial new home of XULA athletics.

“It’s definitely an honor to play here,” Franklin said Wednesday after the Gold Nuggets defeated crosstown rival Loyola 54-44. “I feel God blessed to be here. I definitely don’t take it for granted.”

Franklin and her teammates certainly are playing like they love their new digs. The Gold Nuggets are ranked 10th nationally in NAIA Division I and, with the victory over Loyola, improved to 7-1 by claiming their fifth win in a row.

The Xavier men’s team, the Gold Rush, accompany the Nuggets on the national stage. The Rush took the court at the Convocation Center against their Loyola counterparts Wednesday ranked 13th in the NAIA, and a 77-67 upset loss shouldn’t knock them out of the national poll.

Senior forward Anthony Simmons said the Rush is keeping a positive outlook despite falling to 9-2.

“The season still looks bright,” he said. “We’re still 9-2, and we have 20 games to go. We still have the whole second half of the year left, and everyone is staying positive.”

The sparkling surroundings no doubt play a role in that optimism. It’s hard to feel too down after one loss if your new home court is as attractive as the Convocation Center, which opened to the public Nov. 3.

The facility seats nearly 4,000 for basketball games.

“It’s immaculate,” men’s coach Dannton Jackson said. “It’s one of the best buildings in the state of Louisiana, and we’re excited to be playing here every night.”

Added women’s coach Bo Browder: “It’s big-time. We’re honored to have the opportunity to play in the best arena in the state and one of the best in the South.”

The university announced plans to construct the facility in March 2011, with ground-breaking shortly after that. The opening of the Convocation Center closed a storied chapter in the history of XULA athletics: Xavier left the Barn, a historic, 1,300-seat facility that was home since 1937.

It wasn’t easy leaving such an important fixture of the local college sports scene — Simmons noted that, every once in a while, the Rush practice in the Barn “to keep us humble” — but it’s also hard for those involved in Xavier athletics to not be proud of their state-of-the-art hoops temple.

Athletic director Dennis Cousin said the Convocation Center symbolizes the progress the university’s programs have made under his watch.

“It represents us in a perfect fashion,” he said. “When I came here, I wanted to bring our athletic program up to the level of our academic program, and I think we’ve done that. We’ve won 40 (Gulf Coast Athletic Conference and other) championships in eight years, and our graduation rate is still high.”

He added that the new building, which is across Washington Avenue from the main campus, will inspire XULA athletes to continue such recent success.

“If you’re going to play there, you’re going to do the best you can to keep the sports program up at that level,” he said.

If the performance of the basketball teams during the first third of their 2012-13 seasons are any indication, the Rush and Nuggets are living up to expectations.

The men’s squad finished 23-9 last season, claimed the GCAC regular-season co-championship and qualified for the NAIA Tournament for the sixth time in eight years. The Gold Rush finished the campaign ranked 24th nationally.

The women’s team went 26-9 in 2011-12 and earned the GCAC regular-season and tournament crowns. They earned a spot in the NAIA Tournament for the third year in a row and the 10th time since 2001, finishing the season 16th in the national polls.

Franklin said that for the Gold Nuggets to sustain their success, they have to work on team chemistry — the roster features eight new players — and “get back to the foundation of what this program was built on: hard, tough defense.”

If the Nuggets do that, plus continue to cultivate a productive offense, Franklin said the squad “should peak at the right time.”

“We’re ranked No. 10 right now, but we have to live up to that,” she said.

Crowder agreed, saying the Nuggets need to find consistency on offense and assimilate the team’s new members more seamlessly into the game plan.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” the coach said. “We’re 10th in the country, so we’re getting a lot of respect on a national level, but it’s not about where you’re ranked in the beginning of the year that counts. It’s where you’re ranked at the end of the year that counts.”

On the men’s side, the Gold Rush is tasked with rebounding from the tough loss to Loyola on Wednesday.

“Every team has a bad day,” Simmons said. “We have to break it down and get tougher on defense.”

Added Jackson: “We’ll have some tough lessons, but we’ll have to bounce back from them. We’re still 9-2, and we’re nationally ranked.”