Having just lost to Iowa in the second round of last year’s Women’s NCAA Tournament, the Miami players were eager to leave the court and get back to their locker room.
But Hurricanes coach Katie Meier grabbed guard Jessica Thomas in the tunnel and forced Thomas to watch Iowa celebrate on its home court.
“That’s just been a burning sensation,” Thomas said. “We’ve used it as motivation the whole season, the whole offseason.”
Thomas and the fifth-seeded Hurricanes will take the first step toward erasing last year’s bitter memory when they face No. 12 seed South Dakota State in an Women’s NCAA Tournament first-round game Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Stanford University’s Maples Pavilion. The winner will face No. 4 Stanford or No. 13 San Francisco here on Monday night.
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“[Thomas and I] learn way more from losses,” Meier said. “We take moments like that and it keeps driving us. We have that totally in common. The team left and I yanked her back and said you stand here and watch this. And she hasn’t stopped working since that moment.”
Thomas, a junior guard, has always excelled at tournament time. Her postseason average of 17.8 points is nine more than her career scoring average. In 87 regular-season games, she has scored 17 points four times. In nine postseason games at UM, she has reached 17 points five times.
“During the offseason you put in a lot of hard work for moments like this,” Thomas said. “Once it becomes March, everything you’ve worked on just becomes repetition. It just becomes natural.”
Thomas averaged 14.7 points, five assists and four rebounds in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament as Miami advanced to the semifinals before losing to No. 2 Notre Dame.
“She’s playing with a tremendous amount of confidence right now, and I love it,” first-team all-ACC junior guard Adrienne Motley said. “It’s kind of hard to guard two guards that do what we can do. I’m extremely proud of her, and she’s had us on her back.”
Meier said Thomas’s work ethic is an example of what makes UM’s program thrive.
“We don’t have McDonald’s All-Americans, but we continue to beat teams who do have them,” Meier said. “It’s player development, but it’s also their attitude. [The players] enjoy being in the gym, they enjoy being around their coaches. We really do have a great culture.”
The Hurricanes (24-8), ranked 19th in the country, are appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years but have never won two games in a row.
UM will be facing another team with extensive NCAA experience that has struggled to advance on the biggest stage. The Jackrabbits (26-6) have won the Summit League seven times in the past eight years but are 1-6 in the NCAA Tournament in that span — including five consecutive first-round losses, all by double digits.
Still, SDSU is dangerous from long range — all five starters shoot at least 34 percent from behind the arc — and tough on defense. SDSU is led by sophomore point guard Macy Miller (15.3 points per game), who made 7 of 11 shots from behind the arc in the Summit League tournament.