“I Really Believe We Can Do Something Special”
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – They’d already been over game plan and the scout countless times.
But just before the Hurricanes were set to hit the practice court the day before their NCAA Tournament opener against Oklahoma State, Miami assistant coaches Fitzroy Anthony, Josh Petersen and Shenise Johnson pulled their players into a corner of the Hurricanes locker room, opened their respective laptops and tried to review everything one more time.
Even as head coach Katie Meier addressed the media gathered at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall before Miami’s practice, the Hurricanes weren’t about to waste a single moment of preparation.
The stakes are far too high when the calendar flips to March and the madness truly begins.
“Preparation is the key to success, but I think that everybody’s just ready to play,” said Johnson, a former two-time Associated Press All-American and the 2011 ACC Player of the Year during her playing career at Miami. “We’ve watched a ton of film on Oklahoma State. We’ve watched a ton of film on Miami. And we’re just trying to make sure we’re going in with the mindset of imposing our will and our style of play. It hasn’t really been a frenzy. We really want to be playing [already]. I think it’s just been more like ‘Let’s get there. Let’s start our game and let’s see how the chips fall.’”
Said Anthony, “At the end of the day, it’s your job as a coach to make sure they’re prepared. Win or lose, you never want it to be like you didn’t prepare your players…So any time you have an opportunity, whether it’s five minutes or two minutes just to show them something they learned in practice, or you can practice something they didn’t do correctly, you do it. That one thing that you’re correcting could be the thing that wins the game for you. You never know.”
There is, no doubt, some measure of uncertainty that comes with playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Ahead of Selection Sunday, more than a few teams across the country are on the bubble, wondering if they’ll be invited to compete on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Once a tournament berth is secured, there’s a rush to prepare for more than likely, an unfamiliar opponent. And there’s a frenzy to make sure travel plans are set, equipment needs are met and that a team has everything it needs to be successful in its bid for a championship.
At Miami, the days immediately after Selection Sunday were a bit of a blur.
Anthony, Petersen, Johnson and Meier began working to learn everything they could about a Cowgirls team that posted a 21-11 record and went 10-8 in the Big 12.
Margie Gill and Lonnette Hall, Miami’s two directors of basketball operations set about making sure the Hurricanes, their coaches and staff had everything in order ahead of Thursday’s trip from Coral Gables to Bloomington.
Meanwhile, assistant strength and conditioning coach Brianne Brown did her part to make sure the Hurricanes were physically ready to get back on the court after a grueling season and run through the ACC Tournament and Jenn Strawley, Miami’s senior deputy director of athletics, worked to make sure everyone in the program had everything they needed to carry out their roles to the best of their abilities.
All of it – players and coaches say – can make a difference this time of year.
“I guess you never really appreciate it all enough during the year because it’s so routine. Everything is prepared up front,” Hurricanes guard Karla Erjavec said. “But now, when you don’t know where you’re going to play, you don’t know when you’re going to go, you kind of have to wait until the last second and it’s really impressive to see how they all click on all cylinders and really work together to make the best plan for us.
“You kind of sit back and you’re like ‘Wow. I’m so grateful for those people, that they give us what they give us on a daily basis and how they do their jobs tremendously. Now we have to look at each other and I’m like ‘Let’s do our jobs. Let’s do what we do best and let’s give them back one, two, three, four wins…show them our appreciation for everything they do for us.”
The ninth-seeded Hurricanes will have their first opportunity to do exactly that on Saturday.
Miami qualified for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team after posting a 19-12 overall record and going 11-7 in the ultra-competitive ACC, a conference that sent eight teams to the tournament.
During the regular season, the Hurricanes more than proved they could keep pace with some of the nation’s elite teams, notching wins over North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Florida State, all of whom were ranked in the AP Top 25 poll when they faced Miami.
That January win over the Hokies makes the Hurricanes one of just 12 teams this season to defeat one of the tournament’s one seeds. Making that stat even more impressive? The fact the Hurricanes were the lone unranked team to beat a one-seeded team by double digits.
This year, the Hurricanes have relied on an experienced core of players, but they’ve proven one of the toughest teams to scout in the ACC. Nine different players have led the team in scoring across their 31 games and eight have led the team in rebounding.
Ten of the 11 active Hurricanes have notched double-digit scoring games and six have reached 20 points in a game. And Meier says the combination of that kind of balance – along with the Hurricanes’ ability to play multiple defenses – will be a big key in the tournament.
“The multiple defenses that we play…no one ever knows what we’re going to play against them and that’s hard,” Meier said. “We might press full court. We might face guard. We might trap, half-court, might play man and they have to be ready for all of those.”
Said Haley Cavinder, a second-team All-ACC selection who averaged 12.8 points and 4.6 points for the Hurricanes during the regular season, “Something that we bring is we are really balanced. We have a lot of people that could step up. That’s hard to scout. So just a very well-balanced team [that] plays really well together. I think we play really hard on the defensive end, and I think that we can just bring that into the tournament and play good team basketball.”
But, Meier noted, Oklahoma State can be balanced in its scoring, too – which could make for a frustrating first few minutes for the Hurricanes as they settle into the game.
The Cowgirls enter the tournament with three players – Naomie Alnatas, Lior Garzon and Terryn Milton – all averaging double figures. Three more are averaging more than 9.5 points per game.
“They’re so smart. They’re balanced. They’re balanced in a different way than we are balanced, I think,” Meier said. “They’re balanced like consistently 10, 12 points a night from consistent players. We’re balanced in a way where someone off our bench might go for 20 and then the next game, they might only be able to get four based on the schemes or something like that…
“But within the course of a game, whatever shot is the best shots for Oklahoma State, they find it and hit it. So, I’m very impressed with them. I really think their defense is high level. From what I have seen, personnel scouting, they do a fantastic job. A fantastic job. It’s a compliment to their staff.”
Now, with all the scouting, the studying, the traveling and the preparing behind them, it’s time for Oklahoma State and Miami to take their turn in the Big Dance.
And it’s an opportunity none of the players or coaches on the floor at Assembly Hall will take for granted – no matter how many times they’ve competed in the NCAA Tournament previously.
“I’m just super grateful. Just trying to take it one day at a time, one possession at a time and focus on the little things, focus on what makes me the best and what makes my teammates the best,” Erjavec said. “Definitely enjoy the opportunity, that’s what I’ve been telling everybody…I really want to make some noise. I really believe we can do something special. We’ve been through so much adversity during the whole year. I’m just really excited for everything to come together and make a special story because it’s March.”