Canes Set to Face UNC in ACC Tournament Opener

Canes Set to Face UNC in ACC Tournament Opener

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

GREENSBORO, N.C. – The message she has tried to deliver all week has been a simple one.

At their final practice in Coral Gables before heading north to the ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament, on a practice court at the Greensboro Coliseum, and on the bus after an early-morning workout, Hurricanes head coach Katie Meier has been candid and encouraging.

When Miami takes the floor on Thursday for its postseason opener against North Carolina, the Hurricanes have a giant opportunity in front of them.

It’s their responsibility now to seize it.

“We have an opportunity to add another great win to our resume against a great program that’s really talented and that is very difficult to play against,” Meier said. “It’s exactly what we need. … It’s funny because [Monday] was March 4th and I told them we needed to ‘march forward, march forth.’ And [Tuesday] was 305 Day, so I thought the universe was telling the 305 Miami team to march forth and take the opportunities because when we’re going after something, and we’re playing hungry, we play really well.”

More than a few of the veteran Hurricanes (18-11, 8-10 ACC) know full well the importance of seizing opportunities and playing hungry in March.

A year ago, players like Jasmyne Roberts, Ja’Leah Williams, Lashae Dwyer and Kyla Oldacre experienced an Elite Eight run that made history at Miami and gave them memories to last a lifetime.

They saw what it was like to battle back from a double-digit deficit in an elimination game. They experienced how it felt to knock off a top-seeded opponent.

Now, that group wants to do its part to recreate some of that magic and give some of the new faces on Miami’s roster an experience they’ll never forget.

A win over North Carolina (19-11, 11-7) could help jumpstart that journey and bolster Miami’s NCAA Tournament resume ahead of Selection Sunday.

That, the Hurricanes say, is plenty motivation to give it their all.

The fact they came up just short after rallying from a 19-point deficit when facing the Tar Heels earlier this season is even more incentive.

“We’re playing a team we lost to. And if we beat North Carolina, then we’d play [Virginia Tech], another team we lost to. … There are opportunities to play teams we lost to in close games. That’s exciting,” Roberts said. “I’m excited for the tournament. I’m excited for the game. I’m excited to prove to people that Miami is here again.”

Said guard Shayeann Day-Wilson of Miami’s resilience during its previous meeting with North Carolina, “We showed a lot of toughness. … We just never gave up and we had hope. I think that’s the biggest thing about our team this year and what we’ve shown. Even if we’re down by 20, down by 15, we’re still going to cut it and we’re still going to try and keep moving through our mistakes and being resilient.”

To get past the Tar Heels on Thursday, the Hurricanes will have to find a way to neutralize the trio of Deja Kelly, Alyssa Ustby and Lexi Donarski, all of whom are averaging double-figures.

Kelly, a three-time first-team All-ACC honoree, leads North Carolina and ranks eighth in the conference in scoring, averaging 16.8 points per game overall and 17.8 points per game against ACC opponents, specifically.

Meanwhile Ustby, who was named a second-team All-ACC honoree this week, averages 12.3 points per game and ranks among conference leaders in rebounding (4th, 9.5 per game), field goal percentage (6th, 47.7), blocks (9th, 1.33 per game), steals (T10th, 1.77 per game) and assists (10th, 3.6).

For the Hurricanes, Day-Wilson – a transfer from Duke – is averaging a team-high 11.9 points per game. She is coming off a career performance, having scored 27 points in Miami’s regular-season finale against Georgia Tech on Sunday and has scored in double figures in 14 of the Hurricanes’ 18 conference games this season.

And Roberts, one of Miami’s breakout players last March, is averaging 11.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game as the postseason begins.

Both know they’ll have to step up for the Hurricanes and both say they’re ready to do their respective parts.

“This team last year shocked a lot of people and we’re going to try and do the same last year,” Day-Wilson said. “I don’t think we’re the underdogs, though. We’re going to come from behind and try to play our best basketball now in March, when it matters.”

Said Roberts, “You don’t get a chance to do this all the time. You don’t get a chance to play for a spot in the tournament, in March Madness, the Big Dance. That’s our ultimate goal and we’re right there. We’re so close. This is such a big opportunity for us. Just win this game and get to the next game. … I was telling Jaida [Patrick] in practice today, ‘This game is winnable. Be excited for this.’ And that’s what I keep telling them all. March Madness, the tournament, it’s so fun. That was the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball and I want everybody on this team to get to experience that feeling and know what it’s like.”