HOOPS HYSTERIA: Women’s basketball vaults into Top 25

The women’s basketball team (16-1) has kept its explosive start alive, landing in the Top 20 in both major polls. But with the heart of the Big East conference schedule ahead, staying focused is the team’s top priority.

The ‘Canes grabbed the No. 18 spot in both the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and the Associated Press Poll as of last week after defeating Boston College, Georgetown, and Pittsburgh in their last three games.

“This team really expected to do well,” Head Coach Ferne Labati said. “We said if you talk the talk you’ve got to walk the walk.”

The walk has been smooth thus far, with leading-scorer Tamara James seventh in scoring in the conference. Shaquana Wilkins is fifth overall in rebounding, while Chanivia Broussard is third in field goal percentage. Yalonda McCormick is second in assists and leads the conference in steals.

Labati believes that McCormick’s performance has been a blend of hard work by the staff, players, and McCormick herself. Her evolution into the player she is right now has been a learning experience for all.

“When she was in high school, we felt she had unbelievable potential,” Labati said. “When she came here her freshman year she had gained quite a bit of weight, so. . . it was just an adjustment that she had to make. There was a lot of effort put into trying to get her to see the light about what college ball was like.”

Now in her junior year, McCormick has met expectations of the kind of player that Labati and the rest of the coaching staff hoped she could be.

“This year she’s playing the way we thought she’d be capable of playing,” Labati said.

“She’s much more mature and she [also] really came around this year in the classroom.”

Labati credits much of the team’s improvement to analysis of games and practices. The ‘Canes are now using a system that allows each player to watch her own highlights from multiple practices and/or games without having to watch or fast-forward through other teammates’ highlights. This system, along with the long hours of hard work put into practice itself, has made the team realize that success requires a maximum effort each time they go out onto the court.

“The coaches, the way they can analyze and break down the tapes and break down practices, keeps [the players] humble,” Labati said. “I think they know that we have a long way to go, we can’t look ahead. It’s all about the next game.”

With ten games remaining in the season, the team has no time to dwell on the past. On Wednesday, the ‘Canes face Notre Dame for the first time this season.

“We’ve really been focusing on one game at a time, so all our input right now is with Notre Dame,” Labati said.

The continued success of the program in its final season in the Big East will be up to the team and its coaches, and the glory of its run so far has resulted in the hunger to win more.

“I’ve always said that if you can have a really good point guard and a good center, you’re going to be in a position to win a lot of games and we’ve always had some kind of inside presence,” Labati said. “It’s been a collective effort of the players, coaches, and support staff. Everybody has worked really hard to get where we are right now.”

Labati believes the ‘Canes are capable of anything, as long as they maintain the right state of mind.

“I think it’s your mindset and how you approach the game. Right now our mindset is on winning the game and on focusing on one thing, not multiple things. It’s just one game at a time and I want to keep it that way.”

The Hurricanes face the Irish tomorrow night at 7 p.m. in the Convocation Center.

Melissa Teich can be contacted at m.teich1@umiami.edu.