Just before the holiday season, Miami women’s basketball had begun to find its rhythm.
The Hurricanes returned to Coral Gables from a single-digit road loss to No. 8 Maryland and gathered momentum in time for a transition to an 18-game Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.
But as witnessed in the initial stage of the 2021-22 college basketball season, the impacts of the ongoing global pandemic caused the winners of three straight games to experience delays in starting conference action as scheduled. UM first missed a chance to dethrone then-No. 15 Duke on Dec. 19 due to too many Hurricanes stuck in COVID-19 protocol, and then saw a Jan. 2 matchup versus Virginia scratched as the Cavaliers experienced the same issue.
“Lola [Pendande] had a double-double, Paula [Ruiz] finally plays. We have all this great news, we’re rolling, and we’re ready to start the ACC and [were] just so fired up,” Miami head coach Katie Meier said. “Right when we had a chance to really ramp it up, we got shut down.”
In the ACC, every team except for Miami has played at least one conference game. Apart from Virginia, all others have competed in two or more. Six of the conference’s schools also hold rankings in the Associated Press Top 25.
For the first time in 2 ½ weeks, the Hurricanes (7-3) will get their chance to battle an ACC opponent and garner yet another home victory against Wake Forest Thursday at 7 p.m. UM is 10-7 in ACC openers and 2-0 versus the Demon Deacons in conference-opening situations.
Miami graduate guard Kelsey Marshall, averaging 16.5 points per game, continues to spearhead UM’s scoring offense. The 5-foot-9 South Florida native is the only Hurricane to produce back-to-back 20-point outings this season, while standing two 3-point field goals away from becoming the program’s all-time leading 3-point scorer.
Earning ACC Freshman of the Week honors, freshman guard Lashae Dwyer has provided a spark in the Hurricanes’ rotation, having averaged 11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the team’s two most-recent wins. Junior forward Lola Penande has also backboned the Miami frontcourt, her latest contribution a double-double against Robert Morris on Dec. 12. The Utah transfer has notched averages of 8.4 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds.
“Ja’Leah [Williams] and Lashae have really taken advantage of Mykea [Gray] and Destiny [Harden] not being at full strength and have gotten some incredible playing time,” Meier said.
Led by 10th-year head coach Jen Hoover, a former three-time All-ACC honoree at Wake Forest and the program’s latest all-time wins leader, the Demon Deacons (11-3, 1-2 ACC) arrive at the Watsco Center having collected an overtime win and a 13-point loss across the turn of the calendar year.
Jewel Spear remains Wake Forest’s top offensive threat, maintaining a scoring average of nearly 21 points per contest. The sophomore guard missed a Preseason All-ACC Team nomination in October yet remains the conference’s leading scorer. Spear produced 15 points and seven rebounds in the Demon Deacons’ loss to Virginia Tech Sunday.
Wake Forest averages the second-fewest assists per contest in the ACC, though is tied for fifth in rebounds per game at 42.4.
Redshirt senior forward Destiny Harden, Miami’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer last season, is “very close” to making a return to the hardwood, according to Meier. The former West Virginia transfer has been sidelined due to a lower extremity injury.
The Hurricanes have also executed their best offensive output in the third period through 10 games, shooting an average of 43% while scoring almost 18 points per game through the frame.
Miami, along with three other ACC teams, is undefeated at home at a 7-0 mark. The Canes’ only loss to the Demon Deacons in the last five meetings hailed from a three-point defeat in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, last January.
“We’re ramping it up again,” Meier said. “We have the potential to be a very threatening team in terms of attacking the rim and playing fast. We have some really electric players that can generate for us.”