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Shawnice Wilson sparks Miami Hurricanes women to tough victory

They were coming off back-to-back road losses that knocked them out of the Top 25. Their starting point guard and assistant coach were out with the flu. Other players on the University of Miami women’s basketball team had flu symptoms, and coach Katie Meier was weary, coughing and sniffling.

Across the BankUnited Center court Thursday night, ready to do battle, were the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, a team with size, a red-hot freshman and incentive to win after a pair of losses.

Meier turned to 6-6 senior center Shawnice “Pepper’’ Wilson during pregame introductions and said: “Well, it’s time for you to have a career night.”

Wilson smiled, and replied: “I’m ready.”

She sure was. Wilson was a big reason the Hurricanes toughed out a much-needed 71-65 home win.

She carried the team on her broad shoulders and finished the night with a career-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting. She clogged the lane, drew foul after foul and was 7 of 10 from the free-throw line. She also grabbed nine rebounds, seven of them on the defensive end.

“We absolutely 100 percent needed her to have a career night for us to win,” Meier said.

The coach heaped praise on all her seniors, who came through in a critical home game for the Hurricanes (12-4, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference). UM trailed 31-30 at halftime, despite holding the Yellow Jackets to 25.7 percent shooting. But the Canes made adjustments, vowed to be more physical and opened the second half with a 16-8 run to take a seven-point lead with 13 minutes to go.

Ten of the points during that stretch came from seniors — a pair of free throws by Morgan Stroman, a layup by Wilson and a pair of three-pointers from Stefanie Yderstrom, who finished the night with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting.

“We were really on the ropes there, tough weekend and needed to respond to that, have had the flu rip through us,” Meier said. “The seniors just took care of business in a very, very important ballgame. It was somewhat of a must-win situation in terms of where we want to finish the year, conference and NCAA. They knew it, and had a ton of pressure on them, and it’s really fun to see them knowing and welcoming the pressure and responding to a complete gut check.

“And that’s all this game was. It was all about mental toughness and guts, because Georgia Tech hit some really big shots. The odds were definitely against us.”

Wilson said before the game she was looking forward to the physical battle she has come to expect from the Yellow Jackets (8-8, 1-4 ACC). Her previous high was 17 points.

“I knew this game was important coming off a two-game losing streak,” Wilson said. “I knew I needed to step up, especially being down players. I made sure I was there for my team. It was huge for me. From this game, a lot more attention’s going to be paid to me, but that will open up our guards and provide more opportunities for other players.”

Georgia Tech’s leading scorer, Tyaunna Marshall, was 3 for 12 for 10 points, and second-leading scorer Dawnn Maye (11.9 ppg) was 2 for 12 for four points. Perhaps Maye was a bit jittery, as she is a Fort Lauderdale Dillard grad and was playing in front of family and friends.

Georgia Tech’s deep bench came up big, outscoring UM’s bench 43-3. Freshman Brittany Jackson led her team with 23 points off the bench. She gave the Canes fits all night, which came as no surprise to the UM coaching staff. Jackson grew up in Sebastian, north of Vero Beach, and her first scholarship offer came from Meier her freshman year. Jackson was named ACC Rookie of the Week last week after scoring a game-high 20 points against Virginia and at No. 11 North Carolina.

“So, I was pretty smart, huh?” Meier joked about recruiting Jackson. “She’s a great player. She’s a scorer. She caught fire. … We switched defenses multiple times in the second half to break their rhythm. Wasn’t like we could just shut them down. We just gutted it out.”

The Canes are back on the road Sunday at Virginia and then at Wake Forest four days later.