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Miami falls short at No. 1 Louisville; loses momentum at home versus Georgia Tech

Miami almost shocked the world at Louisville, and then fell to another upper-echelon conference team in Georgia Tech two days later.

NCAA Womens Basketball: North Florida at Miami-Florida
Hurricanes women’s basketball guard Kelsey Marshall controls the basketball against North Florida defender Imani Benedith during the third quarter at the Watsco Center on Nov. 28, 2020 (Coral Gables, Fla.).
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes women’s basketball team almost defied gravity this past week, coming just four points shy of defeating the nation’s No. 1 ranked team in the Louisville Cardinals on the road in Louisville, Ky.

Without senior guard Mykea Gray serving as their floor general this season due to an anterior cruciate ligament tear suffered in a preseason practice, the Canes still chugged along with the Cardinals, despite never taking the lead through 40 minutes. An 8-0 run in the middle of the second quarter, however, kept the game within reach and the majority of the college basketball landscape watching.

Senior guard Kelsey Marshall paced the Canes with 19 points, junior forward Naomi Mbandu added a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but Miami was unable to top Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center, losing 79-76 on Tuesday.

“We played tough, and it was a heck of environment,” Miami head coach Katie Meier said. “I told the team before the game ‘First of all, we’re playing the No. 1 team in the country. Second of all, we just found ourselves a little bit at Pitt [after the win], and third of all, the day that Kobe [Bryant] passed [on Jan. 26] if you need any motivation to play basketball today, to show your love for the game, to dare, to risk, to go for it.”

Despite shooting only 3-of-12 from the field in the fourth quarter, Louisville (16-0, 9-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) relied on 52 percent shooting to outscore Miami (7-7, 4-7 ACC) in the first half. Louisville outrebounded UM 34-32, although the Cardinals allowed 20 second-chance points to their visitors.

“We have not been as focused as we need to be all year, and then this was a game where I thought we were very focused for 40 minutes,” Meier said.

Louisville jumped out to an 8-2 lead behind a 3-point goal each from guards Hailey Van Lith and Elizabeth Balogun, as the Cardinals shot 9-of-18 in the first period. Miami, however, answered early with four points each from Mbandu and senior guard Endia Banks, trailing 22-13 after 10 minutes.

“She’s a great mismatch for us,” said Meier on Mbandu’s strengths and her recently increased role. “It’s really awesome to be able to score against Louisville because they’re a great defensive team, and you kind of have to have a unique player. Endia kept playing huge minutes and I thought she was awesome.”

Freshman forward Nyayongah Gony and junior guard Karla Erjavec, cleared to play by the NCAA’s blanket waiver in December, both sunk a triple to reduce the margin to just one point.

Louisville guard Dana Evans, the reigning ACC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year, matched with two-straight threes. Forward Elizabeth Dixon, scored eight of the Cardinals’ final 11 points to close the first half, with Miami behind Louisville 44-36.

“We gotta do a better job defensively, it is also like playing on the road [with some fans],” Meier said. “In a big game like this, if the players hit shots on you, then you just go ‘Okay’. But we put them on the [free throw] line and that’s just not as dramatic and not as fun, so we gotta get a little bit more disciplined there.”

The Cardinals began to resemble the nation’s best program out of the gates in the second half. Forward Olivia Cochran scored an and-one while Van Lith and Balogun continued the team’s 9-3 burst. That would be then followed with nine made foul shots for the remainder of the third period.

Banks converted on a 3-point attempt and Mbandu nailed a jump shot, while Miami held Louisville to no field goals for the final two minutes before the fourth quarter. Mbandu expanded upon that shooting to start the final 10 minutes, hitting two straight shots for the Canes.

Marshall would then step up for Miami, scoring nine of her team’s 15 points. The 1,000-point scorer’s heroics would not be enough, as Evans spearheaded her team’s offense with all 10 points of her own, nonetheless.

Having traveled back to Coral Gables, Fla., with a renewed sense of confidence despite the close loss, Miami instead dropped another conference showdown.

Though Marshall paced the Canes again in scoring with 16 points, Georgia Tech guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen and forward Lorela Cubaj combined for 27 points, as Miami suffered its second consecutive ACC loss on Thursday night at the Watsco Center 70-56.

Both teams opened the game sizzling from the field, shooting at least 63 percent in the first quarter. Senior guard Taylor Mason, logged nine early points the first half, as Miami was hoping to ride the momentum of their veteran guards.

That performance only continued for the Yellow Jackets in the second, however, having still shot 41.2 percent, including an 8-0 run, while the Canes dropped to 4-of-15 shooting (26.7 percent).

“We did not play focused or with a lot of maturity,” Meier said on Thursday. “That’s a shame because it’s a very, very good Georgia Tech team with really difficult pieces and you need to be dialed in and locked in, and you need to be very exact.”

Miami did not have enough shooting to keep pace with the ACC’s third-ranked team, who held the Canes to a game-low 29.4 percent on field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Yellow Jackets guard Kierra Fletcher also added a dozen points, while center Nerea Hermosa had 10 to maintain the diverse attack on the evening.

“I told the team ‘I don’t care that we played on Tuesday night because [as] a big-time program in the NCAA, you play Friday [and] Sunday or you play Saturday [and] Monday to go to the Elite 8, to go to the Sweet 16, to go to the Final Four’,” Meier said. “So, if that was our mentality and we’re looking for that as an excuse, then that’s just really disappointing and there’s no way that we’re gonna go there. We can’t keep getting into these deep holes and then against a team that passes so well and that have post [players] that pass so well and [that] is a very hard team to press.”

Miami was also scheduled to play Boston College (5-7, 1-7 ACC), yet the game was postponed to Feb. 18 due to the league’s coronavirus implications. The Canes will now face Florida State (5-4, 4-4 ACC), a team led by guard Morgan Jones, at home on Sunday at 12 p.m. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network Extra program.