On Nov. 22 of last year, this writer wrote a column entitled ‘Lady Canes need to follow Labati’s lead, in which I stated: “It is time to stop rebuilding and it is time to get that NCAA berth.” A couple players on the team(who I will leave unnamed), did not care for some of the words in that article.
It seemed like fair criticism at the time, but now, two months later, those words would be very inaccurate to describe the makings of this much-improved 2002-2003 women’s basketball squad. Throw out Wednesday’s effort against Boston College, and you’ve got one of the top three squads in the Big East conference, and one that could give Connecticut a game when the Huskies enter the Convocation Center Feb. 19.
What are the reasons for the improvement? There are two, one which anyone can pick up just by looking at the stat sheet, and the other which is much more difficult to understand.
The story of the year has obviously been the emergence of freshman Tamara James, who currently leads the Big East in scoring, averaging 24.3 points, while giving the team a consistent rebounder, grabbing over nine of those a contest.
James is a superstar and that does two things to the makeup of coach Ferne Labati’s squad. First, it gives the team a much needed go-to player, one who has found a way to break her assignments and beat defenses to the basket. More importantly, James’s presence as a great scorer allows the rest of the players to contribute as role players, versus last year, where every player tried to be Miami’s offensive threat on a given night.
However, there is a second factor to Miami’s success, something in which I can’t explain other than to say I witnessed it while hanging out with the players and coaches during the second and third games of their January road trip. This Miami Hurricanes team is much looser and much more excited to play this season.
Much of that, I’m sure is due to the ‘Canes three big road victories over Georgetown, Syracuse and then No. 17 Notre Dame. Those victories, though, came after three consecutive road losses in non-conference play. Somewhere, their had to have been a change in attitude among the players.
Perhaps, the attitude was really good entering the season. Several of Miami’s personnel, including Labati, James, and Yalonda McCormick, said the ‘Canes were setting a Big East Championship as one of their goals. When you play in a conference with Connecticut and Notre Dame, it takes a lot of confidence to make a statement like that. Maybe that is what Miami needed, a boost in confidence.
The players certainly have been stepping on to the court with a lot more confidence. Take McCormick, who struggled mightily last season on and off the court. Not so anymore, as the sophomore has won the starting point guard position and has thrived in her role as a distributor of the basketball, dishing out 93 assists versus just 57 turnovers.
Two other starters, Shaquana Wilkins and Melissa Knight, have been playing much better basketball to solidify their roles in the starting five. Wilkins, the ‘Lady Canes center who stands just 6-2, makes up for her smaller frame with an extra helping of grit and hustle. Knight moved into her starting spot because of hard work, and the development of her three-point shot.
As a whole, this is a much different team than the one who settled for an NIT berth a year ago, even if most of the personnel is identical. They always say that one great player can completely change the complexity of a team, and that is what has happened with the arrival and emergence of Tamara James. However, while James’s contribution has obviously affected the team off the court, there are other reasons for the Miami Hurricanes 11-4 record than just the new kid in town.
You can reach Jeremy Marks-Peltz at email@example.com.