After years of being shipped off to faraway places, the University of Miami women’s basketball team will finally get to stay at home for the first round – and potentially the second round — of the NCAA Tournament.
The 16th-ranked Hurricanes were awarded a No. 4 seed and will host No. 13 seed Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Watsco Center. In the other opening game of the Coral Gables bracket, fifth-seeded Marquette, coached by former Miami assistant Carolyn Kieger, faces No. 12-seed Quinnipiac.
When the words “Coral Gables, FL” popped up on the bracket during the ESPN Selection Monday show, UM coach Katie Meier and her players went berserk and jumped out of their seats at Buffalo Wild Wings, where they were joined by fans and cheerleaders. “We’re hosting! We’re hosting!” screamed senior guard Jessica Thomas, as she hugged fellow senior Adrienne Motley.
Last year, the Hurricanes entered the tournament with high hopes as a No. 5 seed, but they had to travel 2,574 miles west to Palo Alto, Calif., and were knocked out in the first round by the 12th-seeded South Dakota State Jackrabbits 74-71. No other team in the field of 64 traveled as far for their opening game.
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The year before, as a No. 11 seed, UM upset Washington in the first round in Iowa City, but lost to Iowa (helped by a huge home crowd) in the second round. The Canes were sent to Iowa City and Spokane, Wash., the two previous times they made the Big Dance.
“You all earned this, this is not a gift, you earned the opportunity to host,” Meier shouted at her team Monday night. “So, we’re going to play our best basketball of the year in front of all of our fans.”
Meier, her eyes still tearing up, later said: “It’s a big moment. We’ve been a three seed a couple times and by the nature of some of the ways they changed the rules, we didn’t get to host. We just haven’t had a break. It’s just so nice. We earned this, I felt good about our chances, but you never know. To see those kids erupt like that...it was amazing.
“This shows a lot of respect for our program. We’re one of the most consistent programs in the country, we don’t lose to anyone if they’re not ranked. We’ve shown we’re battle-tested...so I think they’re starting to talk about us as, yeah we are one of the top 16 teams in the country.”
It is the first time under the current women’s tournament format that Miami was selected as a regional host. They last played at home in 1993, when all the higher-seeded teams hosted opening games.
“We’re making history here,” said senior Keyona Hayes. “When I saw the words `Coral Gables’ up there, it was so exciting. We get to go to our own beds, be in our comfort zone, while other teams have to start packing and getting on flights.”
The Hurricanes were rewarded for their 23-8 record (10-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference), their ranking in the polls, and their No. 15 ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index. They were 13-2 at home, their only losses to second-ranked Notre Dame and tenth-ranked Florida State.
Of course, the warm, sunny weather probably didn’t hurt – especially as large sections of the nation brace for late-winter storms.
It is the sixth time in the past seven years the Canes earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament after just three invitations in the previous 17 years. Miami has played in the post-season eight years in a row, and this was the seventh season in eight with 20-plus wins.
Florida Gulf Coast had a 26-8 record this season and was 17-1 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. In the other game, Marquette (25-7, 13-5 Big East) will play Quinnipiac (27-6, 17-3 MAAC).
Meier and her players were ecstatic to see Marquette in their bracket because Kieger, 33, is a Meier protege and was a beloved assistant coach at UM up until three years ago. As soon as the Selection Show was over, Meier called Kieger and they celebrated the news together.
“When I saw Marquette up there, I was so happy for Keegs,” Meier said. “She’s like family. We were joking around that we couldn’t play each other because our seedings were so far apart but then they went and won their conference tournament, and I thought, `Oh gosh.’’’
Thomas expects a great atmosphere, and promised “we’re going to take our senior season out with a bang. We’re going to put on a show, and all the fans down here should come out and watch.”