Their 12-point lead had vanished, they trailed a gritty Georgia Tech team by two heading into the final quarter, and then, as if on cue, the University of Miami seniors stepped up one by one and made sure their Senior Day ended on a sweet note with a 75-70 victory on Sunday.
Jessica Thomas, at (barely) 5-6 the shortest player on the UM women’s basketball team, leaped over some taller Yellow Jackets and hit a jumper to put the 17th-ranked Canes up 61-57.
Keyona Hayes wrapped her trusty hands around the ball as it clanked off the rim after a Laura Cornelius missed three-pointer, put it in the hoop, got fouled and made the free throw. UM was now up 65-59. UM coach Katie Meier clenched her fist, pumped it across her entire body and roared: “E-nor-mous! I think I threw my back out on that one,” Meier would later say.
Then, with 1:32 to go, in a shot befitting her nickname, Adrienne “Money Mot” Motley sank a three-pointer and erupted in celebration, as did Meier. The coach admitted she planned to call a timeout just before the shot, but when she saw Motley going up she said to herself: “Shut up, Meier, let it fly. That was the dagger.”
The Canes were up 68-59.
That Motley was on the floor at all was commendable, considering she left Sunday’s game twice with an apparent tweaked right hamstring. “Nicks and pains, nothing serious,” Motley said.
But the drama wasn’t over. Georgia Tech cut UM’s lead to 73-70 with 3.1 seconds remaining on a three-pointer by Italian freshman Francesca Pan, who led the Yellow Jackets with 21 points.
No worries. Thomas went to the free-throw line and calmly made both shots to seal the win in front of 1,321 fans at the Watsco Center.
The Hurricanes finished the regular season 21-7 and 10-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They locked up the No. 7 seed in the ACC tournament, which begins Wednesday in Conway, South Carolina, on the Coastal Carolina University campus. Miami opens play Thursday against the winner of the Boston College-Georgia Tech game.
If the Canes happen to play the Yellow Jackets again, they’ll know what to expect.
Hayes finished Sunday with a career-high 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, and she led UM with eight rebounds. Motley added 17 points, three assists and three steals. Thomas chipped in 12 points and six assists.
“That Miami team in the fourth quarter was really good, really smart,” Meier said. “We got through the emotional response to the physicality and went next level. We responded with a high level of composure and IQ. The execution in that fourth quarter is as proud as I’ve been of this team all year.”
Meier had joked a few days before the game to bring helmets and pads. Turns out they would have come in handy during a rough-and-tumble battle that knocked Khaila Prather out of the game (knee, MRI on Monday) and left Motley limping on a few occasions.
“We knew what we were walking into,” said Meier, pointing out that Georgia Tech had eight close losses. “They’re that close. They know it and we knew it, and this was going to be a real pinnacle for them to knock us off on our home court on Senior Night.”