Another step in right direction

University of Miami women's basketball coach Fern Labati used every chance she got this season to boost about the quality of basketball teams from top to bottom in the Big East conference. All year long, Labati said that at least five teams in the conference were qualified to play in the NCAA Tournament. She was right on one account. The selection committee opted to place five Big East squads in the tournament.

But unfortunately for Labati the Hurricanes weren't one of them as they were left out of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year after posting an 18-11 record overall and finishing fifth in the conference at 10-6. The nation's No. 1 team Connecticut (33-0), Syracuse (18-12), Notre Dame (19-9), Boston College (23-7) and Villanova (19-10) will represent the Big East in the NCAA Tournament, starting Friday. Miami will play Georgia Tech in Atlanta in the first-round of National Invitational Tournament, Wednesday night. The winner advances to play either Houston or Rice.

The Hurricanes, who lost to Villanova in the second-round of the conference championship after opening with a win over Georgetown, defeated Syracuse and Boston College during the regular season, while dropping games to Notre Dame, Connecticut and Villanova.

Despite defeating three-ranked teams this season, including two in the last month, Labati thought the overall strength of the conference combined with the Hurricanes RPI didn't help their cause in the long run.

"I thought the fact that the Big East was so good really hurt us," said Labati. "If you watched the selection show on Sunday, you saw that we were one of the three bubble teams."

"But sitting at 17 (victories) going into the conference tournament, we probably needed another one or two. From that standpoint, we probably did enough. But we had some real quality wins I thought. I'm not going to complain because the committee did they're job and I respect that. Having to win the Big East Tournament might have been too much to ask from us."

After expressing disappointment after being bypassed by the committee, Labati also realizes that even getting an NIT berth is a step in the right direction for the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes will be making their third appearance in the NIT and have participated in the NCAA four times since Labati took over in 1988. "Obviously, the girls were upset and felt we should have gotten in. I felt really bad for our three seniors (Martha Bodley, Kathryn Fowler and Sheila James) because they won't get the opportunity of putting a ring on their fingers. When you're at the University of Miami winning games and getting to the NCAAs without question is a goal of ours every year," said Labati.

But I'm excited about playing in the NIT and the girls want to use this opportunity to make a statement by winning the whole thing and proving the committee wrong. This program is still growing and moving in the right direction. We not only want to be recognized as one of the premier teams in the Big East, we want to be one of the best in the nation. We want to be mentioned with the Connecticuts, Tennessees and Louisiana Techs of college basketball. This can use this tournament as a step in the right direction in getting there. If we can win the NIT that would make our season even more successful."

Labati, in Atlanta for a coaches convention since Monday, won't have to travel far as the Hurricanes meet the 15-13 Yellow Jackets at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Georgia Tech, who was eliminated in the first-round of the NIT last season, will be making their third straight NIT appearance. Georgia Tech is 5-2 all-time in the tournament.

The Yellow Jackets, who lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC Conference championship, are led by junior center Sonja Mallory, averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds a game. The 6-4 Mallory has added 55 blocks. Senior forward Regina Tate is second on the squad with a 12.6 points per game average and 7.8 rebounds. Senior guard Milli Martinez is scoring 12.4 points a game.

Sophomore forward Chanivia Broussard has a team-leading 14.0 points for the Hurricanes, while Meghan Saake (`10.9 ppg) finished the season with a conference-best 114 steals. Shaquana Wilkins is averaging 8.5 points and 6.1 boards a contest. The Hurricanes hold a 2-0 edge in the all-time series against Georgia Tech, with UM taking a 78-63 decision in the 1992 Holiday Classic in Miami, the last time both teams faced each other. UM is 1-3 in the NIT all-time.

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