NCAA Tournament Predictions: Miami staring down Sweet 16

The Hurricanes gameplan against Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament March 22 at the Watsco Center. Photo Credit: Josh Halper

7 p.m. March 24 — No. 4 Miami vs. No. 5 Arizona State

After a 69-62 opening-round victory against 13-seed Florida Gulf Coast, the Miami Hurricanes look to advance to their first Sweet 16 under Katie Meier on Sunday against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

“I think in the beginning we said this is our goal and during the season we were just taking it one game at a time,” redshirt junior guard Laura Cornelius said. “Of course, it’s been something that everyone was driven to attain, and I think we’re getting closer to it now.”

The Sun Devils comfortably defeated 12-seed University of Central Florida 60-45 on Friday. Courtney Ekmark led the way with 20 points.

ASU is a strong defensive unit, allowing only 58.2 points per contest against a tough Pacific Coast Conference-12 schedule that featured four teams, which claimed top-four seeds in the tournament.

“Very impressed with what Arizona State brings to the table,” Meier said. “Cannot believe their composure, their assist-to-turnover ratio is incredible. They have great players who know what they do well and [ASU head coach] Charli [Turner Thorne] does a great job of making sure they are able to play to their strengths. Just an incredible team that probably was expecting to host.”

The Sun Devils are one of the sharpest offensive outfits in the country, led by junior Reili Richardson’s 4.8 assists per game.

The Hurricanes might not be able to get a lot of live-ball turnovers, so they’ll have to be efficient in the half court to make up for fewer transition opportunities.

Senior Emese Hof will need to improve on a first-round performance in which she shot only 4-of-11 from the field and made just two trips to the free throw line. Miami will need Hof to bounce back in order to advance.

In addition to Ekmark, a former national champion at Connecticut, who averages 10.5 points per game, the Hurricanes will have to contend with forward Kianna Ibis.

Ibis leads the Sun Devils with 14.2 points, adding 6.6 rebounds as well, and she’ll have to work on defense to contain Miami’s duo of Hof and Beatrice Mompremier. The pair each had a double-double against FGCU.

“They’re versatile and they can run the floor very well,” Ibis said. “We know it’s a team effort in guarding them. We’re not going to have just a one-on-one game all the time we know that. So we need to lock in and play some good defense against them.”

It’s a short turnaround for both teams, and the coaches and players have done a lot of cramming in the past 24 hours in preparation for Sunday’s game. Both sides insist that they did not look ahead in planning for this game, so coaches and players will be hard at work in the lead-up to their biggest game of the season.

“We’re built for this and my staff has had great experience in moments like this,” Meier said on Saturday. “I feel like yesterday even in the game there was a moment I thought to myself, yep, I’ve been coaching for a while and I know this was coming. So there was no panic. So I think we’re good and we can turn it around quick and I have so much faith in my staff.”

Beyond being a huge individual milestone for Meier, advancing to her first career Sweet 16 would give her more time with a team that has grown to be one of her personal favorites.

“Just any day that I get to extend my time with this group is meaningful, because I’m telling you, you can coach for a lifetime and not have such a special group,” Meier said. “They’re so different. There is so much joy, so much passion, there is so much trust and love.”

It has truly been a special season for the Miami Hurricanes, and it feels like it has all been leading to a remarkable accomplishment.

Miami will get it done and move on to Portland, Oregon for the Sweet 16.

Prediction: Miami 68 — Arizona State 61