Defensive-minded women’s basketball set for Baha Mar tournament

Junior guard Moulayna Johnson Sidi Baba drives to the basket against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 12 at the Watsco Center.
Junior guard Moulayna Johnson Sidi Baba drives to the basket against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 12 at the Watsco Center. Photo credit: Alex Carnochan

Even with an undefeated start to a new season, Miami’s women’s basketball team has its sights set on rising to a new challenge over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

The Hurricanes defended their home court through the first nine days of college basketball, resembling their reliance on depth with seven different student-athletes earning at least 17 minutes per game. A 56-46 victory over high-scoring Florida Atlantic Thursday confirmed the team’s emphasis on the defensive end.

The four-game homestand — marking the beginning of the 50th season of women’s basketball at the University of Miami — ended with the Hurricanes (4-0) ranking 20th nationally in scoring defense (48.8 points per game). Miami heads to Nassau, Bahamas, for a showdown against Washington State (3-0) on Thursday in the Baha Mar Pink Flamingo Championship.

“That defensive effort was required and was very necessary,” Miami head coach Katie Meier said on Thursday. “That’s how we’re going to have to play.”

Defense, however, remains a small part of the necessary formula to compete against multiple of the nation’s current contenders for the Final Four this spring. Miami averages 59.3 points and has outscored its first four opponents 133-100 in the first and third periods, and yet holds a 26.5% mark from 3-point territory.

“I don’t know that we’re going to be scoring 85 [points] against the top-level teams, but I think getting in the 70’s is very realistic when we get everything just cleaned up,” Meier said. “Any of the performances that we’ve had so far on the offensive end, we will not be competitive in The Bahamas. We have got to open our eyes a little bit wider and consider a three-man game or a two-man game, instead of just considering kind of like the one obvious option on the offense.”

The Cougars, led by fourth-year head coach Kamie Ethridge who led the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 seasons and a debuted ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll last winter, look to start 4-0 for the sixth time in team history. Washington State holds the fewest turnovers (39) in the Pac-12, with reliance on center Bella Murekatete, averaging 15.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest. Guard Krystal Leger-Walker leads the conference with over 5 ½ assists per contest.

The Hurricanes will then face No. 4 Indiana (4-0) on Saturday, which enters the 2021-22 campaign after a 20-win season for the sixth straight year and an Elite Eight berth in the NCAA Tournament. Guard Grace Berger, a reigning All-Big Ten first team nominee who led the nation in triple-doubles last year, returns to the program as one of the Hoosiers’ two preseason All-Big Ten selections. Forward Mackenzie Holmes, the other, is Indiana’s reigning scoring leader after averaging nearly 18 points per game.

With renewed focus, the Hurricanes appear determined to contend for a deeper run in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in March and a return to the NCAA Tournament after their second-round loss to Virginia Tech in the conference tournament’s second round. Veteran point guard Mykea Gray’s return, in addition to the sharpshooting impact of graduate guard Kelsey Marshall, provides Miami’s freshmen guards with enough leadership and energy. Redshirt senior forward Destiny Harden remains out with an undisclosed injury, after setting career-highs in scoring on three separate occasions — the third against the Hokies in the eight-point defeat.

Freshmen guards Ja’Leah Williams and Lashae Dwyer, who notched eight steals against Florida Atlantic, caught the eyes of the coaching staff having combined for 13 points Thursday.

“I was really happy with Ja’Leah and Lashae because I felt like they made way better decisions,” Meier said. “So, they’re understanding their talent and they’re understanding the opportunities.”

Dwyer, believes a steadier offensive attack can come to fruition with a continued swarming defense.

“The offense will always come to us, but I feel like if we keep playing defense, the offense will really come to us,” Dwyer said. “So, I don’t think that’s a problem right now.”

Given its inconsistent timing on offense, the team has had five days to recharge and review areas of improvement prior to its largest test of the season thus far. Miami played four opponents in nine days.

“There’s going to be a night, and it’s all going to come together and we’re going to be a real dangerous team,” Meier said. “But right now, we’re a team that’s just fighting through a lot, but we’re fighting and I’ll take that any day.”

Miami and Washington State tip-off at 4 p.m. Thursday. A start time of 8:30 p.m. is set for the Hurricanes’ Saturday matchup against Indiana.

“We really need to rise to the challenge,” Meier said. “This is like an Elite Eight in women’s basketball, without question.”