MIAMI — As the final seconds ticked away, Miami players started whooping it up. They were joined by delirious fans who stormed the court. Even Ibis, the school’s mascot, got involved, prancing in the middle of a mosh pit.
There were all celebrating a significant moment for the women’s basketball program.
The 72-65 victory over Notre Dame on Feb. 7 was the first time the Hurricanes had ever beaten a defending national champion.
Ten days later, Miami pulled off another major milestone, beating Louisville (ranked No. 2 at the time) on the road. It was the first time the Hurricanes had ever knocked off a team ranked among the top two in the nation.
This time, the scene was remarkably different as Cardinals devotees scrambled to leave the arena before the buzzer sounded.
“It was crazy,” Miami sophomore guard Mykea Gray said. “With about a minute or so left, I looked up and everybody was heading out the door. By the time the game ended, it was so quiet and empty. I had never seen anything like that.”
No matter the reactions, the Hurricanes have remained consistent, repeatedly winning against top-tier teams in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Last week, Miami beat then-No. 22 FSU, marking its first regular-season win against its state rival since 2014.
The No. 15 Hurricanes have five wins this season against teams currently ranked in the top 25. If Miami can get past No. 10 North Carolina State on Sunday, it will have victories against every ranked team in the ACC. That bodes well for the Hurricanes, who currently are tied for the third seed in the upcoming conference tournament.
Given Miami’s impressive resume, an NCAA Tournament appearance is all but guaranteed. Miami has grown accustomed to that. After all, this would be the Hurricanes’ fifth straight trip and their eighth in the past nine years.
Consistently making the tournament has elevated the program. But to truly take it to another stratosphere, the Hurricanes would have to do something no other state program has ever done: make the NCAA Final Four, which this year is in Tampa.
“I think that would be huge for the state,” Miami coach Katie Meier said. “We’re not the headliner, especially when you have teams go year-after-year in this conference. I mean, look at Syracuse. They’ve gone to a Final Four and they’re not the headliner.
“But to get there, we can say, ‘Hey, look at us’ and get more recognition for what’s going on in this state.”
It is a difficult task. FSU has made the Elite Eight three times; Florida once. The closest Miami has ever come was a Sweet 16 appearance in 1992.
“The hard part is doing it consistently,” said Meier, now in her 14th season with the Hurricanes. “You do that for a period of time then you have the breakthrough.”
State programs are at least in the mix. The Seminoles have made the tournament six straight seasons, advancing to the round of 32 each time. USF is on a four-year run of making the field.
“The programs in the state are already elevated,” Meier said. “Look at what they’ve done. I talk to Sue (Semrau) at FSU and Jose (Fernandez) at USF all the time. I modeled my program after what Sue has done. And I know Florida will eventually get there.
“For a while now, we’ve had three teams ranked in the top 25. That’s three from the state and 22 everywhere else. That’s saying something about the job these programs have done.”
By building a program that is a model of consistency, Miami has also been able to raise its recruiting profile.
Take Gray. She was a four-star prospect and a McDonald’s All-American nominee out of Maryland. Two years ago, she picked the Hurricanes over offers from Mississippi State, Penn State and Virginia Tech.
“The weather was nice, but I really liked the team and family-atmosphere that was being built,” Gray said. “It was the right decision. The school — and the state — is probably known more football than anything else, but we’re starting to make people pay attention to us.”
Women’s Final Four
Amalie Arena, Tampa
April 5: Semifinals, 7 and 9:30
April 7: Final, 6
More info/tickets: www.ncaa.com/womens-final-four