Hurricanes' unique approach
Miami uses motivators to remind team of the overall goal
One heart. One pulse. One mission.
Those phrases can be found on individual links of a chain the Miami women's basketball team builds on the way out to the court before every game. The links come together to form one chain, illustrating the Hurricanes' season theme of "One."
"Linking up" may be only a symbolic ritual, but the meaning of the act holds a much deeper meaning for the No. 6 Hurricanes which returned every player from last year's team that shared the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The roster is highlighted by ACC Preseason Player of the Year Shenise Johnson and Preseason All-ACC pick Riquna Williams.
"We wanted to make sure we were a unified team this year," UM head coach Katie Meier said. "We thought we did a really nice job with two special players that needed to have special performances last year - when they had special performances, we won. But we just felt we were a lot better and there were more pieces to the puzzle. We felt it could be a lot more balanced."
When Meier and her staff decided on this year's theme, she not only wanted to make the supporting cast for Johnson and Williams stronger, but take a little pressure off her two star players. Johnson and Williams rank fourth and fifth in the conference with 16.7 and 15.6 points per game respectively, while Johnson tops the team with 7.8 rebounds per game.
"I thought they would play better if other people would come through on a consistent basis," Meier said.
"We have two superstars on our team, and that is always nice to have," senior forward Sylvia Bullock said. "Opponents, of course, are going to focus on them, and everybody else is going to need to come through and help out or we're not going to be successful. Not everyone is going to have a good day every day."
Meier gave every individual a link, and let the players write a phrase beginning with "one." Each one is different, and symbolizes what each person contributes to the team.
"Coach said everyone has different personalities and that's what she loves so much about this team," sophomore guard Krystal Saunders said. "We're so diverse that it makes the team even better, because we can all bring something to the table."
The links go to every game with the Hurricanes -- and have even gotten lost in the luggage by the airlines for a couple days. Before the team runs on to the court for introductions, every player links to Meier as they walk out the locker room door.
"When we link up, this is the moment and everything else is gone," Meier said. "You are there and if your teammate needs during the next two hours of your life, you will be there for them. It symbolizes a lot, but it is easier said than done."
"At that moment, when we put on our link, nothing else really matters," Bullock said. "We're all becoming one, and ready to play with one mindset."
The unified approach seems to be working well for Miami. The Hurricanes (21-3), who were picked to win the ACC in the preseason, have lost just one game in league play and head to No. 8 Maryland on a 10-game winning streak for a Top 10 showdown on Feb. 12.
A prime example was in the Hurricanes' first game against Maryland on Jan. 12. Johnson had entered the contest with a nation-leading 87-game streak of scoring in double figures. The Terrapins held Johnson to six points that night, but Williams picked up the slack with a 34-point night en route to the program's first-ever victory over a Top 5 team.
"I feel like we're all holding each other accountable," Saunders said. "If we're winning, we're all winning together. If we're losing, we're not blaming each other. If we all fall, we all fall."
The Hurricanes have also battled adversity since losing junior forward Morgan Stroman to a season-ending Achilles injury in the late minutes of the Virginia game on Jan. 17. Stroman was Miami's third-leading scorer (12.9 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (6.5 rpg), and Meier has been juggling lineups ever since to fill the void.
"She was an all-conference player that was probably the heart and soul of our energy and our effort," Meier said.
But the Hurricanes are not allowing the loss of Stroman get to them. Since the injury, Miami is 5-0, winning those games by an average of 15.6 points per game. On Feb. 8, the Hurricanes avenged their only ACC loss of the season by handily defeating No. 22 North Carolina, 61-37.
Saunders' link is inscribed with words "one mission", symbolizing the mission of advancing to the Women's Final Four - something Miami has yet to achieve in program history. However, there is still a long stretch ahead for the Hurricanes in accomplishing that mission.
In their final five regular season games, not only will they travel to Maryland, but will also visit No. 5 Duke on Feb. 24. The Blue Devils are the only unbeaten team in ACC play.
"This is where most teams falter," Saunders said. "February is a tough month. We just have to fight … we can't give up. We have to stay together and keep pushing."
"We're not finished by any means," Meier said. "We're on this journey and I'm sure we're going to learn some hard lessons this month, too. We want to play in March … we want to play great basketball in March."