On The Bubble

Way back in October, University of Miami women's basketball coach Fern Labati warned all her players-and anybody else listening- about the dangers of sitting on the bubble at season's end.

Labati, in her 15th season at Miami, has been in the business long enough to know that a team staggering to the finish line come March isn't exactly going to garner much sympathy when the selection committee sits down to determine who advances to the NCAA Tournament and who goes home. But her message apparently wasn't clear enough for the Hurricanes.

After a strong start to the season, which included an 8-3 non-conference record, consisting of victories over Texas A&M and Maryland, the Hurricanes (15-11, 7-8) find themselves in the midst of a horrendous downslide that has put their participation in the NCAA Tournament in serious jeopardy.

A month and a half ago, Miami was sitting comfortably near the top of the Big East conference at 12-4 and thinking about the possibility of earning a berth and perhaps a respectable seeding into the NCAAs. But after dropping four of their last five contests and posting only three league victories since mid-February, the Hurricanes are faced with a must-win situation and then some when they host the Georgetown Hoyas (15-11, 6-9) tonight at the Convocation Center in Coral Gables. Miami was 2-5 in February.

"We need to get this one," Labati said. "And make a run in the Big East championship."

With the equally bunched conference staking claim to No.1 ranked Connecticut (28-0, 15-0) and five additional teams that currently sport a better overall record than Miami, including Rutgers (20-5, 13-2), Villanova (21-5, 11-4), Boston College (19-7, 11-4), Virginia Tech (18-8, 9-6) and Notre Dame (17-9, 9-6), the Hurricanes best chances of getting into the round of 64 might be by winning the conference tournament in Piscataway, New Jersey next week. When the committee gathers and pulls up the information sheet on the Hurricanes they will find that Miami has only two wins against the top-six teams in the conference. And both of those came in January.

"We talked about this before the season started, that you have to do whatever it takes to get as many wins as possible," said Labati. They all count whether its in November or March. But we're just not playing good basketball right now. We have to be able to make smarter decisions."

The Hurricanes will pin their hopes on freshman forward Tamara James who leads the Big East with a 21.7 points per game and is a leading candidate for the league's Rookie-of-the-Year honors. James is the highest scoring first-year player in the conference and has anchored a Miami offense second in the league in points (74.8 ppg). Miami also leads the nation with 399 steals. Georgetown comes in with uncertain postseason aspirations after snapping a three-game losing streak with a victory over St. John's last Saturday. Junior forward Rebakkah Brunson is averaging 16.5 points a game and is ninth in the country in rebounding with 10.9 a game.

Miami leads the all-time series between both teams 13-8 and owns a four-game winning streak over the Hoyas. The Hurricanes, which defeated the Hoyas 60-57 earlier this season, would likely enter the Big East tournament as the seventh-seed with a win tonight.

WIN OR ELSE: The Hurricanes men's basketball team is also in a position where they can't afford another defeat. Miami (10-15, 3-11) travels to Virginia Tech (11-16, 4-10) in danger of missing the Big East Tournament for the first time in school history. With the Hurricanes in last place of the league's East Division a Virginia Tech win would eliminate Miami from postseason participation. The last-place team in each division of the Big East does not advance to the conference tournament.

The Hurricanes, losers of four of their last five games, put together a valiant effort last Saturday against Boston College but could not overcome another slow start and sloppiness in an eventual 81-78 defeat to the Eagles. Miami played without leading scorer Darius Rice (19.1 points per game) who missed the game with ligament damage in his right index finger. Rice's return against the Hokies is questionable.

Virginia Tech, coming off a win over Villanova, would end Miami's season and secure a spot in the conferment tournament with a victory. Junior forward Bryant Matthews (17.1 points per game) and senior center Terry Taylor (15.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg) have created a formidable tandem in the paint for the Hokies that could give the undermanned Hurricanes- especially without Rice- some problems inside.

Miami, winless in Big East road games this season, has a current five-game winning streak against the Hokies.

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