Canes Invited To The Dance

The discomfort in Fern Labati's stomach worsened with every unveiling of the NCAA Tournament bracket and the University of Miami women's basketball team nowhere to found on the screen. Time was running out on the Hurricanes to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA women's basketball tournament and Labati could not believe that an 18-win season and a semifinals appearance in the Big East Championship, including a victory over nationally ranked Rutgers, would escape the selection committee.

Labati had to sweat it out. But she didn't need a dose of Maalox.

The Hurricanes (18-12) are headed to the Midwest Regional to face the New Mexico Lobos (22-8) at the Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico Saturday night (11 p.m., ESPN 2) after receiving an at-large berth to the 64-team NCAA Tournament. Miami, seeded eleventh, is making their fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while sixth-seed New Mexico is in the tournament for the second consecutive season.

"The fact that the kids never stopped playing and the coaches never stopped coaching all season, no matter how bad we lost a game or how well we played in a victory, I think was a big reason why we're going to the tournament," said Labati. "One of the things that really helped us as well was that we were on television a lot. We also played in front of a lot of people in the Big East Tournament and the head of the selection committee was there to see it."

Miami entered the Big East Tournament on the NCAA bubble and in desperate need of a surge after dropping four of their last six regular season games. And the Hurricanes responded by reaching the semifinals after an opening round win over Syracuse and upset of the Scarlet Knights in the quarterfinals. Villanova ousted Miami in the semifinals.

A year after getting snubbed despite winning 18 games and reaching the quarterfinals of the conference tournament Labati was confident that another 18-win season and having gone a round deeper into the Big East Championship would help the Hurricanes argument.

"I think getting into the semifinals of the Big East Tournament got us over the top and the win over Rutgers was huge," says Labati who guided the Hurricanes to the Sweet 16 in 1992. "We didn't play well towards the end of the regular season but I feel the girls are playing with confidence now and most importantly believe that they can get it done. I'm just honored that were part of the tournament."

The Hurricanes could not start making reservations for the NCAA Tournament even after making a run in the conference championship and leaving a good impression on the selection committee. Although the Hurricanes closed out the regular season with a win over Georgetown the Hurricanes lost two of the last three and won just five times in the their final 13 games of the regular season. Miami did improve their chances by defeating the Scarlet Knights on their home floor, according to Cheryl Marra, the chair of the women's selection committee.

"That put them right there," said Matta. "They also had three very good wins against some solid teams."

Matta was referring back to early January when the Hurricanes opened the Big East portion of their schedule with consecutive road victories over Georgetown, Syracuse and Notre Dame. At that point in the season Miami was 11-3 and riding an eight-game winning streak.

"That's why I always tell the girls that they all count no matter if it's in November or March," said Labati. "Who knows what would have happened if we didn't get off to the start we did."

Said senior guard Meghan Saake, the steals leader in the Big East: "Our performance in the Big East Tournament was crucial. We're a very balanced team and we showed that in the Big East Tournament. This is kind of a new beginning for us."

The Miami-New Mexico survivor will advance to play the No. 3 Mississippi State (23-7)/No. 14 Manhattan (20-9) winner in the second round Monday, Mar. 24, with a spot in the Sweet 16 at stake. Should the Hurricanes reach the Sweet 16 Xavier, Texas Tech, Southwest Missouri State and University of California (Santa Barbara) are all potential opponents.

But Labati isn't looking that far ahead. Labati is aware that the Lobos are peaking on the court and will have the added advantage of playing at home. A raucous crowd at the Pitt will back New Mexico, which is 9-1 in its last 10 games, including winning the Mountain West conference tournament. And Labati is taking extra measure to get the Hurricanes prepared in anticipation of the loud surroundings.

"The atmosphere is going to be crazy," said Labati. "We're going to probably have to use hand signals to get calls out and make smart decisions to come out on top. For us to advance in this thing we're going to have to play great defense, take care of the basketball and avoid giving easy baskets. The basic fundamentals and the little things are expecially important this time of year."

Even with the possibility that the Lobos will double-up defensively on Miami freshman forward Tamara James- the Hurricanes leading scorer with 21.0 points a game and a Big East All-Rookie First Team member- Labati understands the importance of getting the ball in her hands.

"Without a doubt Tamara has to play well for us to be successful," Labati said. "On the other hand she commands so much respect on her own that Tamara opens things up for her teammates."

Labati also added that junior forward Chanivia Broussard (9.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg) has to be effective inside, guard Yalonda McCormick (10.0 ppg, 6.1 apg and 3.1 rpg) needs to be smart with the ball and Saake (111 steals) has to play solid defense for the Hurricanes in have any chance of staying around for a round or two.

"We have to be consistent in all areas of the game."

That would be a good idea.

New Mexico has won straight games, including the conference championship title game over BYU, and is allowing a meager 54.9 points per game on defense. The Lobos are shooting .341 percent from three-point range and are outrebounding the opposition 40.7 to 34.7 per game. Most of that work has been produced by senior center Jordan Adams who leads the team in scoring (15.4), rebounding (6.5) and blocked shots (69). Adams was named the MWC Tournament MVP after scoring 18 points and adding nine rebounds in the title game. The combination of senior forward Chelsea Greer (10.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and sophomore guard Mandi Moore (8.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg) has also been effective.

Miami is one of seven Big East teams in the tournament joining Connecticut, Villanova, Boston College, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament.

The Hurricanes are 2-4 all-time in the NCAA's.

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