Women's Hoops: Nikki Kremer Spotlight

In 1999, Nikki Kremer helped Melanie Balcomb put the Xavier Musketeers on the national map in women's basketball. Now, in 2002, she's the latest addition to Coach Balcomb's staff at Vanderbilt.

As Director of Basketball Operations for the women's basketball team, Kremer will be responsible for many of the nuts and bolts of the program, ranging from basketball camps to promotions to keeping track of measurements for shoes and uniforms.

But as a former player who played for four years for Balcomb at Xavier, Kremer brings a unique perspective with her. "Since I was a player and I actually played under Balcomb, I think that will be very helpful for the players," said Kremer last week. "With a whole new staff, I think that's going to be very important this year."

As Kremer talks about Balcomb, several words frequently recur: Focus, fundamentals, intensity, and passion.

"She's a very fundamentally sound coach," says Kremer. "She'll preach and will spend hours and hours of just going over fundamentals again."

"And I myself was not so fundamentally sound," she says looking back. "I was more of what some people would call a 'flashy player'. . . I would do a lot of behind the back passes and things like that. And I can remember her early on in my career being on top of me all the time about that, just to settle down.

"We'd joke around a little bit about it, but by junior and senior year, she'd let me do more and more because I could do the fundmentally sound things, but it was entertaining whereas early in my career, I would make her absolutely irate. By the end of my career, she would like it and appreciate it."

By Kremer's senior year, Balcomb wasn't the only person who appreciated it. In 1999, as the senior point guard, she led the Musketeers to their first-ever at large bid in the NCAA tournament. Then, in the first round #9-seeded Xavier knocked off a formidable Florida International team to advance to a second round matchup against perennial powerhouse UConn. The Huskies were hosting the subregional, so the game was played before a sellout crowd on UConn's homecourt at Gampel Pavillion.

"At that time, Xavier hadn't had as much recognition as it has now, so nobody knew who we are. We weren't supposed to have a chance in the world of beating UConn," she says.

But that wasn't how the script played out in front of a national television audience. Xavier led for virtually the entire game, and Kremer was on the floor every single minute.

Kremer says modestly that "I was having one of my more decent games," but fans around the country were riveted by her performance (23 points, X assists) as the unknown Musketeers had #1-seeded UConn on the ropes until the last minute of the game.

Then Cinderella's clock began to strike midnight. "With about 34 seconds left, tie score, I got fouled and had to shoot some free throws. I was 8 for 8 up until then. . . . . I look at Coach. She says, 'Kremer, I don't want anybody else on the line. Right now, you have these.'

"And I looked at her with all the confidence in the world thinking "I'll make these, no problem." I missed the first one really bad. I looked over at her again -- we had a really good relationship -- she said, 'I just need one, we just need one.'

"I missed the second one worse than I've ever shot a free throw. Obviously, we didn't win after that. Tamika Williams got fouled on the other end, and she made the free throws so UConn had beat us at that time. After the game, it was a traumatic experience for me in the locker room because I was so disappointed with myself."

But when you've just led your team to a hairsbreadth of knocking off a national power, the NCAA doesn't give you the luxury of licking your wounds in the privacy of the locker room. Ready or not, you must go out and bare your soul to the media in the glare of the television lights.

"Coach Balcomb at the time kind of pulled me up in the locker room and talked to me face to face, telling me stop crying, things like that, told me I needed to go out and face the media and the papers and the cameras and talk to them professionally," Kremer says.

"If it wasn't for her making me do that, I might not have been able to do it, but looking back on it, she was the one that got me through that. It's not the way you want to end your career -- that's for sure."

Two years later, Xavier once again attracted attention in the NCAA tournament. But this time, they knocked off the Tennesee Lady Volunteers in the Sweet 16. Though the outcome was different, both the1999 and the 2001 versions of the Musketeers showed the same relentless focus. A result of coaching?

"Focus, absolutely," says Kremer. "And that's what was instilled in us -- in the everyday things we do. There wasn't a single practice I can remember where we weren't focused. It would be very intense. We would practice like we were playing a game. We would prepare for a game every time like we were preparing for a Tennessee or a UConn. We could never slack off because we were playing a smaller name team.

"Whenever coach sets an example like that, and she lives it and it's her passion, that's going to bleed into her players because we're going to do anything for her because we want to win, too. And if she knows how to get us there, we're going to follow that lead.

After graduation from Xavier, Kremer headed overseas for a professional basketball career. "I played in Germany for a couple of months, and our team folded, so I went to France to play, and about two months into that season, I had an LCL," she says. "I had four knee surgeries prior to that -- meniscus damage and bone spur problems."

When the doctors told her that she wouldn't be walking when she was 40 if she kept playing, she decided that a professional career wasn't an option and turned coaching. She returned to Cincinnati to become a high school teacher and coach, with an interest in coaching at the college level in the future.

So when Balcomb asked her to join the Vanderbilt staff, she didn't hesitate.

"As a player I really respected her," says Kremer. "She was very very intense, very focused. I thought she was a mastermind of the game. She would come up with things and plays that I would just be amazed by.

"And that was always my number one interest. That was my passion. I was trying to be a little Melanie Balcomb on the floor when I played. When she got the opportunity to come here and she asked me to be part of that, I thought that I could only learn more from her and I could keep expanding what I had started with her as a player on a different level."

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