'Canes Confident

Just because the University of Miami women's basketball team is expected to go small - starting with Friday night's season-opener against Gardner Webb - doesn't mean the Hurricanes don't have the capabilities to produce in a big way in 2004-05.

Despite losing plenty of frontcourt muscle and having to rely on a quicker and smaller lineup, the Hurricanes are picked to finish fourth in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And that's just fine with UM coach Ferne Labati, who hardly ever goes into a season without some lofty expectations of her own.

"I expect our team to play hard on both sides of the court and let it out hang out each night," says Labati. "We lose some real key parts, but we still have a few veterans that realize what it's going to take to be successful this season."

Without a player over 6-3 on its current roster, Miami, coming off a 22-7 season, including a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Maryland, will be looking to run at every chance and take full advantage of skillful junior forward Tamara James.

James, a preseason Naismith Trophy candidate and All-ACC selection, is expected to shoulder a big load of the Hurricanes offense thanks in part to her ability to handle the ball, play in the paint and shoot from the perimeter. James is also a physical player who could give the Hurricanes some much needed help up front.

After averaging a team-high 16.3 points per game and becoming the 17th player in UM history to score 1,000 points, James is welcoming the expectations in stride.

"I don't feel pressure - if anything I think it's going to be a lot of fun," says James, who got a late start on training camp after battling a heel injury during the off-season. "This is my style of basketball. I like the thought of running the court and trying to stay with those quick guards in the ACC."

"I know a lot of people are saying that we lost some players and might not be that strong, but I've seen the girls work all summer and I can't wait to get things rolling."

While James is being looked to provide offensive punch senior point guard Yolanda McCormick is the one who keeps the Hurricanes offense in rhythm. The 5-8 senior is an excellent passer and defender. McCormick's performance this season - especially in the guard-dominated ACC - could be the difference between a Hurricanes run in the NCAAs or early exit.

McCormick will likely need to be more aggressive in looking to score after the Hurricanes lost senior Melissa Knight to an ACL injury. With Knight on board the Hurricanes would have benefited greatly from a third scoring option.

In order to have any success the Hurricanes will need to find reliable replacements for Chanivia Broussard and Shaquana Wilkins, Miami's top two rebounders of a year ago. Both graduates combined to average over 14 rebounds a game for the Hurricanes last season.

But Labati is seeking help from sophomore Imani Dhahabu and JuJuana Jones in addition to freshman Lamese James and JUCO transfer Alexandria Fernander. However none of the new players stands over 6-2 so Labati knows size won't be the strength of the squad.

"It's going to take very good defense and being smart with the ball for us to make an impact in the ACC," says Labati. "We have to avoid the turnovers and just take good shots each time we get down there."

UM has quality non-conference road assignments against Florida International (Dec. 4) and Texas Tech (Dec. 6) before opening its league schedule at Florida State Jan. 9. The ACC Tournament is Mar. 4-7.

The Hurricanes put together a strong start to the season last year by winning 12 consecutive games and won six of seven to close out the regular season. But Miami was ousted in the first round of the Big East Tournament before losing to Maryland in the NCAAs.

"Winning in November and December is just as important as winning in March," says Labati. "We have to be in position by the end of the season to make the tournament. We can't expect to back in with a few victories late (in the season) because that's not going to work."

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