Laura Cornelius needed only about two and a half minutes to make one of those plays Kate Meier spent all of last season wishing she could see. On one end of the floor Cornelius came away with a steal and just seconds later she was finding Emese Hoff in the paint for an easy bucket against Nova Southeastern University.
For the first time in more than a year, Cornelius was back in a competitive game, looking — and, most importantly, feeling — like the Cornelius of old.
“It was a special game for me, a special moment,” Cornelius said Thursday at the Miami Hurricanes’ basketball media day. “I wasn’t really nervous, but it was really special. I was really excited. We played well. I got to score again. I got to pass again, run through the smoke again, this time in a jersey, not in a sweatsuit.”
It was only an exhibition, but the 25 minutes she played last Monday in a 91-67 win against a Division II team marked an important hurdle in her recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The guard tore her ACL way back in May of 2017 and missed the entire 2017-18 season. Now a redshirt junior, Cornelius is one of the biggest reasons No. 25 Miami is in both major preseason polls and expected to reach the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season. On Tuesday at 7 p.m., the Hurricanes begin their journey with a road season-opener against the FIU Panthers at Ocean Bank Convocation Center in Miami.
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Even without Cornelius, the Hurricanes managed to massively exceed expectations last season. Miami graduated its top three scorers from the prior season. Cornelius was the Hurricanes’ fourth leading scorer in 2016-17 and didn’t play a single game last year. Miami more than got by, though, thanks to an all-conference season from post player Erykah Davenport, and breakout seasons for guard Mykea Gray and post player Emese Hof.
Cornelius hopes time spent on the sideline served as an effective learning experience. Even if she wasn’t building on-court chemistry with the Hurricanes’ new go-to scorers, Cornelius was able to study tendencies and be ready to lead this coming season.
“You see the game from a different perspective. You see what coaches see and I got to learn about my teammates strengths, their weaknesses, especially how they deal with adversity, how they react within a game,” Cornelius said. “That’s what my job really was last year was to lead them from the sideline. I think I built a really good connection with all of them and I’m very well respected right now. I think I’ve earned that.”
More reinforcements should arrive for Miami later in the season, as well. Cornelius will give the Hurricanes an early lift, then Khaila Prather should join the team for her redshirt season sometime in the coming weeks. Meier didn’t give a timeline for the forward’s return from the left leg injury, which sidelined her for all of last season, but the coach expects Prather to be ready just like Cornelius should be.
“If I ever right a book or whatever, there will be a chapter on the best leadership I ever witnessed in my coaching career. It will be Laura and Kayla last year off the bench,” Meier said at her preseason press conference Thursday. “I never ever have seen better leadership in my life. I was stunned by it. I was emotional every time I saw them doing it.
“Captains aren’t usually bench players, right? Well, they were never going to play. They weren’t going to play and somehow they were the leaders of that time. That was really unselfish and really uncomfortable at first for them, but eventually it was the rock for why we overachieved last year.”