Positive Step

University of Miami women's basketball coach Ferne Labati is sad because she isn't in Albuquerque, New Mexico today getting ready for the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. But she sure isn't disappointed. "It was a great effort by all our players and coaches and for that I'm extremely proud of them," said Labati several days after the Hurricanes fell to New Mexico 91-85 in overtime in the opening round of the tournament.

"I think I'm more proud today of this program and this team than I ever was. It was an honor to be part of it. And I'm pretty sure we're going to get back there soon."

Miami (18-13), a No. 11 seed in the tournament, arrived at the Pitt in New Mexico knowing they were going to be up against a hostile crowd and a streaking Lobos team coming off a conference championship victory in the Mountain West.

But surprisingly the Hurricanes displayed little fear inside a sold out building, taking a significant lead early in the game and controlling most of the second half before fading down the stretch.

Defensive pressure that led to turnovers and easy baskets allowed the Hurricanes to take a 40-29 lead at the half. New Mexico was held to 40 percent shooting from the floor in the first half, including 2-of-11 from three-point range. Labati attributed the Hurricanes success to being able to rotate defensively and not leaving the perimeter open.

"We were able to get through screens and disrupt their shots constantly," said Labati.

The Hurricanes held the lead through the halfway point of the second half before starting to fall apart. New Mexico turned a seven-point deficit into a lead in a matter of minutes largely because of guard Mandi Moore, who had four three-point baskets to keep the Hurricanes at bay and added several baskets in the overtime period to clinch the victory.

"You could see we were getting tired and that really hurt our defense," said Labati. "We stopped rotating and our post defense just wasn't there. We didn't have any more legs to go."

Labati credited freshman forward Tamara James, a Big East first-team selection, for keeping the game from getting out of hand. James finished with a team-high 23 points and was responsible for key points in the closing minutes of regulation.

"Tamara James was just sensational all season long," said Labati. "She is just such a great competitor that she never hangs her head no matter what. She is going to be heard from for many years to come."

Before the game it was being speculated that the Hurricanes would have problems dealing with the raucous environment at the Pitt. But Labati was more than pleased by the way her team handled the conditions.

"It was hot and real loud but our girls were pumped the whole time and ready to play," said Labati. "I think the officials were affected by the environment more than anybody."

Although she did not expand on her comments about the officials Labati did say that she counted several questionable calls after watching the game on tape.

The Hurricanes return 10 players next season despite losing seniors Meghan Saake and Alicia Hartlaub. Replacing Saake, who led the Big East in steals with 114, will clearly be a priority, according to Labati. But with James, Chanivia Broussard and Yalonda McCormick returning Labati said that the Hurricanes could have the best team in school history next year.

James, a candidate for All-American honors this season, was the highest scoring freshman in the nation with 21.0 points a game and was the Hurricanes main source of offense for most of the season. McCormick averaged 10.2 points and 6.0 assists and pleased Labati with the way she handled the way on a nightly basis. Broussard put an early season suspension behind her to provide a lift coming off the bench. Broussard finished the season with 8.5 points and 6.0 rebounds a game.

"I really feel like we're headed in the right direction with this program. Just take a look around," said Labati. "Tamara James is just going to get better and better. Chanivia is a dominant force inside and on the boards. And Yalonda is going to have another year under her belt."

After appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 Labati is planning on getting back there next year. The Hurricanes opened the season 3-3 before going on an eight-game winning streak. Miami struggled during the middle part of the season but rebounded to win four of their last six regular season games. UM went on to post two victories in the Big East Tournament, including an upset win over nationally ranked Rutgers.

"That really gave us a lot of confidence and I think it was the reason we got in the tournament in the first place," said Labati. "We were on television a lot down the stretch and I think that really helped us."

Labati would love nothing more than making another trip next year.

"Once you've had a taste of something it's really difficult to let go," said Labati. "I must admit there is nothing better than being a part of this thing. And I hope the players have that feeling as well. I know they will come back extremely motivated to make another run."

Labati also praised the Big East conference for their performance to date in the NCAA Tournament. Four of the seven teams selected to the tournament are in the Sweet 16 and Labati added that she wouldn't be at all surprised if one of them wins the national title.

"I thought our conference was really overlooked and didn't get the credit it deserved as a whole this year," said Labati. "When you look at it from top to bottom it is clearly one of the best in the country. I say that with 100 percent honesty because I'm really proud of being associated with such a great conference."

The Hurricanes were 5-4 against the seven teams that advanced to the tournament, including victories over Virginia Tech, Georgetown, Notre Dame, St. John's and Rutgers. UM lost 81-60 against top-ranked Connecticut in February.

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