Women look for return trip to NCAAs

For the Hurricanes women’s basketball team, this past season represented both improvement and disappointment.

After a subpar 2000-2001 campaign, Miami recorded several crucial Big East victories en route to a 19-12 mark and a first round victory over Georgetown in the conference tournament. The Lady ‘Canes, however, failed to meet their ultimate goal – an invitation to the NCAA Tournament – and instead settled for an NIT berth. Miami advanced to the second round where they fell to Houston, 83-76.

The Hurricanes began the season with high hopes as sophomore Chanivia Broussard entered the year fresh off a selection to the All-Big East Freshman Team. Also returning were senior guard Sheila James, junior Meghan Saake, junior Alicia Hartlaub and sophomore Shaquana Wilkins. Complementing the returnees were talented freshmen including Pace High standout Yalonda McCormick.

The Hurricanes started the season with three victories at the Knight Sports Complex before dropping back to back road decisions at South Florida and Kentucky. A 69-53 victory over West Virginia led the Hurricanes into the Orange Bowl Classic game against then No. 17 Texas on Dec. 9. That contest turned out to be one of Miami’s most pivotal victories of the season, as James hit a three-pointer with 18 seconds to go and the ‘Canes won, 57-55.

Miami churned out three more victories before an 80-65 loss to Minnesota on Dec. 30, which dropped its record to 8-3. More importantly, it led into 2002 – a year that proved to be a year of inconsistency for the Hurricanes.

The new year started on a down note, as missed free throws cost Miami a game against Notre Dame. That led into a three-game Big East road trip, which the Hurricanes won the first but lost the final two. Miami avenged a 39-37 debacle against Rutgers last year by defeating the Scarlet Knights handily, 67-53, on Jan. 5.

Three nights later, however, Miami suffered an embarrassing loss at West Virginia. The Lady ‘Canes followed that up with a Jan. 12 matchup against top ranked Connecticut, in which the Hurricanes were trounced 96-50. Head coach Ferne Labati was disappointed with her team’s showing against the defending champions.

“In order to stay in the game with Connecticut, you have to score,” Labati said. “And when they made their run, we couldn’t answer with any points at all.”

The loss ignited a spark into the Hurricanes, who reeled off four consecutive victories before an 80-52 defeat at Villanova left Miami with a 13-7 mark going into the final month of the regular season.

Miami continued to match every win with a loss, and vice versa, until a key three-game stretch to end the season, when the Hurricanes pulled off upsets against nationally ranked Virginia Tech and Boston College, while dropping a should-win at Providence in between.

The regular season ended for Miami with a record of 17-10, and a 10-6 mark in the Big East, good for fifth place in the conference. The fifth place conference finish was a big improvement over Miami’s eight-place standing in 2000-2001, but the 17-10 record indicated that the Hurricanes would likely need to win two in the Big East Tournament to be invited into the Big Dance.

Unfortunately for Miami, that didn’t happen. After an impressive 69-52 victory against Georgetown in which Broussard scored 16 points, the Hurricanes ran into trouble against Villanova once again, losing 68-49. When the round of 64 was announced, Miami’s name was left off the list.

“Our early season losses affected our RPI…If we wouldn’t have had either the loss to South Florida or to Kentucky, we probably would have gotten in and they would have taken six teams in the Big East,” Labati said.

After Broussard’s 20 points vaulted Miami to a 73-64 win over Georgia Tech in the opening round of the NIT Tournament, the Canes’ season ended three days later in Houston, as they fell 83-76, ending their year at 19-12.

For Miami, Broussard continued her stellar offensive play, leading the team with 14.2 points per game. Meghan Saake, the 2001-2002 Big East Defensive Player of the Year, also stepped her offense, averaging 11.2 points per game. However, there were individual disappointments, as well. Shelia James had to fight through injuries throughout the entire season and could not be on the floor as much as she would have liked. Alicia Hartlaub, expected to be a double-digit scorer, instead posted just 5.5 points per game, thanks to a second half slump. And McCormick struggled through an unproductive freshman campaign.

Although there were disappointments this past season, the coaching staff got a better grasp on what it will take to make it into the NCAA Tournament next year.

“Two keys is the guard play and rebounding. If we have those two things, I think we are capable of going to the sweet sixteen,” Labati said.

The returning players, like their coach, are looking forward to the challenge.

“We are looking forward to playing in the NCAA Tournament next season, although we will miss our seniors (Shelia James, Martha Bodley, and Kathryn Fowler),” Saake said.