For most of the night, it appeared that the Hurricanes were going to make their historical opener relatively stress-free.
Miami head coach Katie Meier, who entered the game with 303 wins through 16 full seasons at Miami, needed just one more win to surpass former women’s head coach Ferne Labati and become the winningest head coach in the history of Hurricanes basketball (men’s or women’s). And she did just that when UM defeated Jackson State, 72-67.
“I looked up right before the game and saw Coach Ferne Labati in the stands and I got a little bit emotional that she made that amazing gesture to come,” Meier said. “I’ve said it before, but to be the most of anything in school history as a coach, then you have the most support and I’ve had that here at Miami.”
Meier’s squad, tasked with integrating six new players into the program, showed no signs of rust early as it led 27-15 at the end of the first quarter. Eight players scored in the frame, with graduate student Kelsey Marshall leading the way with six points.
Remarkably, that was the last quarter the Hurricanes (1-0) won the rest of the night. Visiting Jackson State (0-1), led by star duo Ameshya Williams and Dayzsha Rogan, won the second and third quarters by three and two points, respectively.
“It’s not like Jackson State is not really good,” Meier said. “I don’t care what conference you play in, they were an NCAA Tournament team last year and we weren’t.”
The Hurricanes remained up double digits for the majority of the second half and held a comfortable 12-point lead with over six minutes remaining. The Tigers nonetheless mounted a 12-0 run, led by Williams, to tie the game near the two-minute mark.
The Canes were held scoreless for over five minutes as the shots that were falling in the first three quarters instead rimmed out. Meier called a timeout in the final minutes.
“I think it was a timeout to just clearly let them know what kind of plays we wanted to run,” Meier said. “To be honest, we still kind of made some mistakes. And, it wasn’t necessarily the newcomers, some of the veterans were playing a little bit out of position.”
After Williams scored down low to tie it up and give the Tigers momentum, the Hurricanes knew who to give the ball to. Marshall, who elected to return to the program as a graduate student, banked in her fifth 3-pointer of the day to put the Hurricanes back in front for good.
“We practice every single day and I treat every game like a practice,” Marshall said. “I like to play cool and collected, and I did that today and was able to hit the three.”
After another bucket from the Tigers, the Hurricanes found senior forward Naomi Mbandu, who stepped up with a confident 3-point stroke from the right wing to push the lead to four.
After a miss on the other end and a free throw from senior guard Karla Erjavec, the Canes were able to hold on and give Meier a historic win.
“I got a little bit emotional,” Meier said. “Miami has done so much for me, the administration has been incredible towards me. It was a very special moment.”
Meier mentioned how meaningful it was that Labati, who she passed in all-time wins, was in attendance to witness the historical landmark.
Rogan, the Second Team All-SWAC member last season, carried the load for the Tigers with 15 points in the first half. Williams, who finished the matchup with 18 points and nine rebounds, did not score in the first half after picking up 2 fouls in the first five minutes.
The story of the third period became the two transfer forwards: Lola Pendante and Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi. Both Pendande and Djaldi-Tabdi exploded in their first games as Hurricanes.
Pendande, the transfer from Utah, poured in eight points in the frame while Djaldi-Tabdi, a Syracuse transfer, nailed two threes to halt Jackson State’s momentum. The duo scored 14 of the 15 Hurricane third quarter points.
“As soon as we get more comfortable, that’s going to be a special connection for us,” Meier said.
All four freshmen also saw time for the ‘Canes. Guards Ja’Leah Williams and Lashae Dwyer saw the most minutes. Ja’Leah Williams added 3 points, while Dwyer contributed five – including a four point play late in the first quarter.
Along with the six newcomers, the Hurricanes welcomed back senior point guard and team captain Mykea Gray. Gray was sidelined all of last season with an ACL injury sustained in the offseason.
“I’m very excited for Mykea to be back, she was working very hard to get to this moment and she did a very good job leading this team and taking care of the ball.”
Meier marveled at Gray’s 6-1 assist-to-turnover ratio against a Tigers team that forced 19 Miami turnovers.
The Watsco Center was also filled with the fans for the first time in two years and it was apparent the players felt the energy emanating from the Hurricane faithful.
“The Watsco Center got a lot more full. I was very excited to have a fan base back out there and feel the support from everyone,” said Marshall, who produced a game-most 19 points.
Although the Hurricanes are happy to start the season off with a win, they recognize there is still a lot more to work on and continue to improve.
“We were in the locker room excited for coach’s win,” Marshall said. “But, we know we have to take every game seriously from beginning to end. We’re going to tighten up and get back to work.”
The Hurricanes are back in action on Friday at the Watsco Center as they host Bethune-Cookman at 7 p.m.