Following the Miami Hurricanes’ 91-85 loss to New Mexico in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, which ended Miami’s 2002-2003 season at 18-13, it is safe to say that that the year has been a success.
After all, Miami accomplished their ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA’s, marking their first invitation to the Big Dance in five years. Plus, coach Ferne Labati and her staff discovered a real gem in local product Tamara James, who led the Big East conference in scoring.
Yet, compared to the midway point of the season, after the ‘Canes swept their three-game January road trip and stood firm at the top of the conference standings with an 11-3 record, there is still a feeling that this team could have done more. There is a feeling here Miami really could have made a run for the top three spots in the Big East, something that Labati and senior guard Meghan Saake emphasized would be one of the ‘Canes goals at the beginning of the season.
To support my point, look at the ensuing seven game period following the Notre Dame victory, a stretch in which Miami reeled off a 3-4 record. The Hurricanes, who led the conference in team scoring for much of the season, did not break the 80-point mark once, after scoring more than 80 in all but one of their previous eight contests. Five of the seven games ended with Miami shooting less than 40 percent from the floor. And mind you, these seven games were all very winnable, the toughest being at Rutgers Feb. 4.
The difference during these seven games was very simple: other teams were able to stop Tamara James. Sure, the 5-9 freshman found a way to post double-digit scoring totals, but it’s hard for her to put up 20 points a game trying to consistently fight through double-teams. Thus, we saw a repeat of last season, in which no one was able to consistently step in the role of becoming a consistent second double-digit scorer for the ‘Canes.
Except for one player.
Sophomore point guard Yalonda McCormick, who suffered through a disappointing rookie campaign both on and off the court, completely turned things around during that stretch, morphing herself into more than just a capable point guard. McCormick became the responsible and hard-nosed floor general that Miami desperately lacked last year. She scored in double figures in all but one of those seven games, showing an impressive range on her jump shot, and an ability to drive in the lane and create multiple shot opportunities.
McCormick ended the season averaging 10.2 points per game, which tied her with Meghan Saake for second on the squad. McCormick also averaged six assists a game, with an assist to turnover ratio high in the plus range.
McCormick’s strong play made up for Shaquana Wilkins and Chanivia Broussard, two proven scorers who saw their points and minutes decrease in the second half. More importantly, the consistency of McCormick allowed Miami to run their offense towards the end of the season through three players and have a more set game plan for the Big East Tournament.
The bottom line, though, is the production of James. Expectations were high for James, who started every game her freshman season, but no one figured she would put up 21 points per game, shoot 52 percent from the field, and lead the ‘Canes in rebounding for good measure. Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the Big East to get over their Musburger-like bias against UM (Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter won the rookie of the year award), but it was enough to give Miami a superstar, and more importantly, someone to lead the ‘Canes to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, Miami’s season was defined by a bunch of close losses against inferior teams that cost the ‘Canes a trip to the Big Dance. This season, we remember Miami finally getting over the hump and developing the conference’s “unofficial” best rookie. Plus, they have this rookie around for three more years and McCormick for two, while Broussard and Wilkins, who will be seniors, should enjoy bounce-back seasons.
But, there were still the close losses to inferior teams, and before Miami wants to become a serious threat to the UConn’s of the world, they need to take care of business against everyone else.
You can reach Jeremy Marks-Peltz at email@example.com.