GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Miami coach Katie Meier was so excited to celebrate a historic win, she accidentally forgot to shake hands with Villanova coach Denise Dillon after the Hurricanes' 70-65 win on Friday put them in the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.
Meier made sure to find Dillon in the hallway after the teams cleared the floor to apologize. She then tried to put into words just how much it means to not only her, but her players, to make it as far as they have -- as a No. 9 seed.
First, Miami needed a 17-point second-half comeback to knock off Oklahoma State in the opening round. Then the Hurricanes pulled off a stunner two days later, beating No. 1 seed Indiana 70-68.
Then against Villanova, Miami blew a 21-point lead, only to get it back again in the closing minute to close out a third straight win. The Hurricanes are the fifth team seeded No. 9 or lower to make it to the Elite Eight. And their combined margin of victory in three games is eight points, the smallest margin of victory through the first three games in NCAA tournament history.
"I can't believe it," Meier said. "I'm not going to act cool. This is awesome. Somebody asked me was that Indiana win the biggest of your career and I just wouldn't answer that question because I just thought no. ... We still had another big win ahead of us and so this is -- I'm not going to say this is the biggest win in our career, either.
"I'm just not, right? We're going to keep pushing. We're going to keep plugging. We're going to keep preparing to win."
What has transformed Miami over the last three weeks seems hard to believe, considering where the Hurricanes were after a disappointing 68-42 loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament March 3. Since then, they have found a way to win, thanks in large part to their toughness, tenacity, will -- and terrific performances from players like Destiny Harden and Jasmyne Roberts.
Harden played magnificent defense on Villanova leading scorer Maddy Siegrist, helping Miami hold her to 8-of-29 shooting -- including multiple missed attempts from close range in the final 30 seconds.
When Harden and Lola Pendande went out of the game with foul trouble in the third quarter, the entire tenor changed. Miami saw its 21-point lead quickly evaporate, as Villanova employed a full-court press that not only flustered the Hurricanes into turnover after turnover, but provided a spark on offense.
"We did kind of lose our composure for a little bit, and allowed them to go on a run," Roberts said. "We still would huddle as a team and talk to each other and say we're still winning, stay together, handle the press. And ultimately we did -- it got better after that. We were in some foul trouble, which was from the press, but still remained together as a team."
Villanova erased that deficit to take a one-point lead with 5 minutes to play. But down the stretch, it was Harden and Roberts who made one crucial play after another to ensure the Hurricanes would advance to the next round. Roberts, in fact, made a critical rebound off Harden's missed layup, then made her own shot in the lane and got fouled. She made the free throw, and Miami never trailed again.
Then with 11 seconds left, up three, she was fouled on a fast break. As she stepped to the line, she had one thought in mind.
"At the free throw line, honestly, I was just telling myself, 'These are the biggest free throws of your life, you've got to hit these,'" Roberts said. "I put in a lot of work and I practice my free throws, so I had to tell myself positive things in my head, and it worked out."
Roberts finished with a career-high 26 points and nine rebounds, earning her a new nickname from Meier: "Cool Hand Luke."
"She doesn't even know that movie," Meier said. "The whole team was on the Jas train."
"I'm not going to act cool. This is awesome. Somebody asked me was that Indiana win the biggest of your career and I just wouldn't answer that question because I just thought no. ... We still had another big win ahead of us and so this is -- I'm not going to say this is the biggest win in our career, either."Miami coach Katie Meier
Harden added: "I call her my twin because I feel like we've got a similar game, and I've been in her head since the season started. I see so much potential in her. Continuing to make her confident is what was going to continue to make us go further. But at the moment, it was just like, you won the game for us right there. It's like you're here right now, so take advantage of it."
Meier said she told her team afterward they should not apologize for letting that big lead slip away, because they did what they had to do to find a way to win.
"I told them you are not going to apologize for blowing whatever the lead was because you earned that lead. Don't you let anyone put something in your head," Meier said. "No. We're in the Elite Eight. You've got to be crazy if you think we're going to doubt ourselves. That's not going to happen, so maybe that's the spine they have, too."