Labati Talking Good Game

University of Miami women's basketball coach Fern Labati does such a job selling her team that one might tend to forget they are coming off a 13-15 campaign and a quick exit from the Big East Tournament.

Labati, in her 13th season as Hurricanes head coach, takes all of ten minutes to tell the gathered audience about what a 'special' player she has running the point guard position in Yalonda McCormick, the potential stardom of Chanivia Broussard and the significant improvements that Shaquana Wilkins has made.

Doesn't matter that the Hurricanes showed defencies during all of the 2000-01 season that were brought to the forefront in a first-round loss to Boston College in the conference championship, which ended their season.

By the time, Labati steps down from the podium any Hurricanes follower would be wise enough to leave the last three weeks of March 2001 open on their calendars-for the NCAA Tournament.

"Top to bottom Connecticut and Notre Dame are undoubtedly the best squads in the Big East and are always a serious threat to win the national championship," said Labati, whose Hurricanes finished eighth in the Big East conference with a 6-10 record last year. "Now saying that, I think we are in that little group of teams ready to make that jump. I honestly believe we can make the NCAA Tournament this year."

With nine players returning, including four starters from last season's team, added to the much anticipated arrival of McCormick the Hurricanes could be headed to the most successful season in the program's history.

And make a genius out of Labati.

"A good amount of the time when a team wins the coach gets most of the glory and the players sometimes get overlooked," Labati said. "I just want to tell you guy these girls have put in a lot of hard work this summer and are really focused on having a great season. You will see tremendous improvement this season"

Not many believe, except for the Hurricanes themselves, that the team will be dancing in the NCAA Tournament five months from now. Although, Labati has reason to feel optimistic.

In order to take full advantage of their personnel, the Hurricanes will look to run and push the ball up court on offense in 2001-02. And McCormick, the high-energy freshman from Monsignor Pace is being handed the keys to carry out UM's frenetic style.

McCormick, who led Pace to the state Final Four after averaging 21.5 points, 10.5 assists, 10.1 steals and 8.0 rebounds as a senior, is regarded as one of the premier point guards in the nation out of high school and is accustomed to doing a lot of running from her days as a Spartan. She has had little trouble adjusting to the offensive plan.

McCormick has made such an impression in her short time with the Hurricanes it didn't long for Labati to realize what kind of player she was working with. McCormick is being depended on to improve an average UM turnover-ratio average from last season.

"She definitely has what it takes to be one of the best players in the nation," Labati said. "It didn't take long for Yalonda to display the special player she is."

Despite McCormick's youth and inexperience, she has made a quality transition from high school to college basketball .

"She is learning every day," Labati said."So far, so good."

A lot is expected out of McCormick, but she will have plenty of help.

Back in the middle for the Hurricanes will be 6-footer Chanivia Broussard, coming off a strong freshman season that ended in her being named to the All-Big East rookie team. Broussard led Miami in scoring (13.2) and was second in rebounding (5.6) thanks in large part to her presence in the paint and ability to clean up the glass.

Broussard, out of Miami Northwestern, reached double-figure points in 17 of the last 19 games of the season and recorded a team-leading 32 blocks.

Labati thinks Broussard's tendency to play around the ball and 'hard-working' ethics are just a few of the things that have the Hurricanes believing a 'great' year is in store for her.

"Not only can she score, she makes the players around her better. Chanivia has that kind of ability on the floor."

The return of senior guard Sheila James and sophomore forward Shaquana Wilkins will also make the opposition respect the Hurricanes perimeter game. Both players have improved their overall basketball skills, according to Labati.

James, who missed the final seven games last season with a hairline fracture in her right leg, is a lethal 3-point shooter and also has a knack for slashing to the basket.

Aside from leading the Hurricanes with 43 made three-pointers last season, James ranked second on the team with 75 assists. James was sixth in steals in the Big East with 56. Despite coming off an injury, Labati doesn't see a let down from James.

"She has been really aggressive all summer taking the ball to the basket," said Labati.

Wilkins, a 6-2 sophomore forward, has made strides in all aspects of her game, including increased strength, and is one of the players that will see quality minutes this year. As a freshman, Wilkins appeared in 26 games and shot 53 percent from the field. She added 23 steals.

Wilkins is expected contribute greatly this season, runs the floor well and adds size to the Miami front-line.

Junior guard Meghan Saake, who will draw many tough assignments this season, leads the Hurricanes man-to-man and zone defensive packages as the team's top defender. Saake played in 27 games, leading the Big East with 74 steals. Saake is also comfortable in a fast-paced game.

"Meghan comes to play every day," Labati said."You don't really have to tell her too much."

Labati is hoping that an 'outstanding' non-conference schedule that includes Texas (Dec. 9) in the Orange Bowl Classic and a trip to Kentucky (Dec. 1) will prepare Miami for another tough Big East run. The Hurricanes host defending national champion Notre Dame, Jan. 2 at the Knight Sports Complex.

"The Big East conference is clearly the top conference in women's basketball," Labati said.

Miami, who opens the regular season Nov. 18 against Iona, could be without redshirt freshman Yolanda Whigham until December. Whigham has a torn ACL.

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