This year, for a change, the University of Miami women’s basketball team didn’t have to fly to its NCAA Tournament first-round game. As host of the opening rounds this weekend, the fourth-seeded Hurricanes got to practice on their home court all week and sleep in their own beds until Friday night, when the team stayed in a hotel to maintain complete focus.
Their Saturday opponent, No. 13 seed Florida Gulf Coast, didn’t have to travel far, either. The Eagles drove down I-75 from Fort Myers. So, when the teams tip off at 4 p.m. at the Watsco Center, expect to hear plenty of cheering from both sides.
“You need every advantage you can get in the NCAA, and if hosting gives us a huge advantage, we are taking it without any apologies,” said UM coach Katie Meier. “But we also have a team that gets to drive here, that’s just down the road and they’re on our radar and it’s an advantage for them, too. It’s not like a West coast team was shipped here. As much as it’s an advantage for us, they get to load up some buses and bring their fans, too. We’re facing that reality, and we’re ready for it.”
The Canes, who haven’t hosted an NCAA Tournament game since 1992, did their part to raise awareness in the community and rally UM fans. Meier was on radio shows pitching the event. Seniors Jessica Thomas and Adrienne Motley were also pitching – literally. They threw out the first and second pitch at the UM baseball game Wednesday night.
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“It’s a big moment for this program: it’s the vision I shared with (the late-UM athletic director) Paul Dee when he hired me 12 years ago,” Meier said. “This is really important. You had to see stuff like this happening here or I wouldn’t have taken the job and these two superstars (pointing to Motley and Thomas) wouldn’t have come. To push that vision through and actually see it happen is a big moment and I need the community to get that.”
The weekend is extra-special for seniors Jessica Thomas, Adrienne Motley, and Keyona Hayes, who are so beloved the UM student section waves fathead giant posters of their faces. They are especially hungry to end their careers on a high note after a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament last year.
To survive their game Saturday, they’ll have to employ serious perimeter defense. Florida Gulf Coast leads the nation with 329 three-point field goals made.
“They’re the best three-point shooting team in the nation and they make 10 a game,” Meier said. “That’s a challenge for us and everyone they play. Their style is very unorthodox. It’s fantastic, it’s just not something that Florida State or Duke does. We haven’t seen it in a while. We have to make some adjustments. They have a great mindset. They don’t make a ton of mistakes.”
If Miami wins, it will play Monday against the winner of Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. game between No. 5 seed Marquette vs. No. 12 Quinnipiac. Marquette, the Big East champion, is coached by former UM assistant Carolyn Keiger, a Meier disciple who at 34 is the second-youngest coach to win a Big East title. She helped recruit many of the current UM players and was on staff when the seniors were freshmen.
“It's very unique; It's very weird,” Kieger said Friday of her homecoming. “I'm enjoying it, obviously, being back here and seeing all familiar faces. But like I told the team, for us, this is a business trip. It's not spring break. We're not coming down to Miami to have some fun. This is our first NCAA Tournament as a group and we're going to enjoy it, and we're going to have a lot of fun, but we also want to get to work.”
Quinnipiac head coach Tricia Fabbri told reporters she had the same message for her team, which is riding a 10-game win streak. “Even though we’re going to Miami, and we’re thrilled to get out of this New England weather, we’re even more excited to really buckle down and get ourselves prepared for Marquette. It was nice packing the shorts, but it was also nice packing the outfit and be playing this time of year.”
NCAA Women’s Tournament, First Round
No. 4 seed UM women vs. No. 13 Florida Gulf Coast
No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Quinnipiac
Where: Watsco Center, UM campus
Game times: Marquette vs Quinnipiac 1:30 p.m.; UM vs FGCU 4 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN2, WVUM-90.5
Scouting Report: The host Hurricanes (23-8) will have to guard the perimeter closely, as Florida Gulf Coast (26-8) leads the nation in three-point shots made with 329. UM is led by seniors Adrienne Motley, Jessica Thomas and Keyona Hayes. Big 10 champion Marquette (25-7) is coached by former UM assistant Carolyn Keiger, a protégé of UM coach Katie Meier. MAAC champion Quinnipiac (27-6) has won 10 games in a row