For the first time in a long time the Hurricanes women's basketball team is glowing in the spotlight thanks to their best start in a decade and an electrifying freshman forward who has shaken up the Big East conference.
The combination resulted in an eight-game winning streak, including three straight road conference wins, and caught the attention of those not in South Florida.
The Hurricanes (11-4, 3-1), coming off a loss to conference unbeaten Boston College, are sitting in second place the conference. Miami just missed being included in the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today/ESPN coaches earlier this week, falling several points short.
"I certainly think that we've matured as a basketball team," says UM coach Fern Labati. "It doesn't hurt to know that we're a very balanced basketball team and have options on offense. This by no means is the same basketball team we had last year."
Labati, in her 15th season with the program, has to go way back to remember when her team was such an attraction. The Hurricanes won 10 of their first 14 games before finishing 24-7 and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1992-93. That team was sparked for the most part by 1992 All-American and Big East Player of the Year Frances Savage, the former star from Ft. Lauderdale who had her number retired at halftime of the Boston College game Wednesday.
Savage undoubtedly will be always be remembered as one of the best players in the program's history. But she may very well have company up in the rafters before too long.
UM freshmen forward Tamara James, who led South Broward High to consecutive state titles in 2000 and 2001, has picked up right where she left off in becoming one of the nation's premier college basketball players and an early candidate for NCAA freshman of the year.
James, the leading scorer in the conference and sixth-leading scorer in the nation with 24.8 points, to go along with a team-leading 9.3 rebounds, has injected her teammates with a new found attitude. One that even Labati isn't shy to admit had been missing in Coral Gables for a while. Along with her quickness and defensive skills, James, third in the conference in rebounding, isn't afraid to mix it up in the paint.
James isn't one to crave attention for her accomplishments.
"I think having determination, heart and the will to learn and adjust have been important for me," says James.
Labati agrees with her young star.
"I just think that she is a very determined individual," says Labati. "She is a player that has tremendous confidence and just won't take no for an answer. And being very coachable makes is another she the kind of player that Tamara is."
James has led the Hurricanes in scoring in 13 of 14 games this season. Earlier this week, James was named Big East Rookie of the Year for the fifth time in the last two months. She is among the leaders in five offensive categories in the Big East. Remarkably, James has been held under 20 points twice all season.
Not bad for a player that many considered being out of control- on and off the court.
Her skills were never a question. But it was James' temperament during her early days of high school that had coaches, friends and even family members wondering if she would ever reach her full potential. James says that landing at UM has helped her mature and understand that there is more to life than just basketball- which was kind of difficult for a girl that had a basketball in her hands by the time she was three-years-old.
Though it wasn't always that way.
James quickly developed a reputation as a malcontent at South Broward, choosing to engage in verbal arguments and causing trouble at any little mention of her basketball abilities. Trouble seemed to persist James everywhere she went. But she had nobody to blame but herself.
It reached the point to which James thought her basketball gifts were a detriment. But James began to put everything in perceptive right before her junior year at South Broward when she suffered a torn ACL. Although, James would recover to lead the team to a state crown she learned a lot during her time away from the game.
"I was kind of depressed because basketball was all I knew," says James. "But I also came to grips with the fact that I had to take school seriously and show respect for the people around me."
"I would have let my emotions get the best of me. "Now, I just don't listen to people because I've realized that even if I go out and score 35 points and grab 20 rebounds there are people that won't be satisfied. That's just the way people are."
Despite a reputation that has persisted her for years, James has blended in nicely with a team that ranks first in steals (17.7 a game), eighth in scoring offense (80.6) and 10th in blocked shots nationally. The 5-9 James has brought an offensive balance to the Hurricanes that had been missing for quite a while. So much so that junior forward Chanivia Broussard, who was the team's leading scorer last year, hasn't started a game and is now a regular contributor of the bench. Broussard, who was suspended by Labati prior to the start of the season, is third on the squad with 9.5 points a contest.
With 247 steals on the season, before the contest against Boston College, the Hurricanes has also earned praise as one of the best defensive teams in the league. Miami is 63.7 points a game, while Meghan Saake and Yolonda McCormick are the top two leaders in steals in the Big East.
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