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MAC Tournament losses can't overshadow basketballs' seasons progress

Contributed by Jack Srail
Contributed by Jack Srail

The excitement was tangible at the Quicken Loans Arena this weekend. Miami's fans, though outnumbered, were louder. Miami men's and women's basketball, though statistically inferior to their opponents, were desperate and energized. There was little room for error and nerves.

Before the men's basketball team lost in the quarter-finals and the women's team lost in the semi-finals, there was little talk of nervousness or uncertainty heading into the post-season and the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

For the first time in several years, the RedHawks' basketball teams deserved to be there -- they had earned their spots in the final MAC standings and their wins were the culmination of the seasons' hard work.

This year's surprising success of a men's program that slogged through its season last year justified the slumped shoulders of the team after the final buzzer signaled a 71-69 loss to the Toledo Rockets.

Women's basketball's win after win and comeback after comeback following a pitiful last season justified the tears in the team's eyes after three missed last-second opportunities to tie the semi-final game. The RedHawks lost 61-58 to the Central Michigan Chippewas.

The final horns ended the team's seasons but, if this season is any indication, it is only the beginning of a new era for Miami basketball.

It has been years -- six and seven, to be exact -- since either basketball team was as successful as they were this season. After exceeding pre-season expectations, Miami's basketball programs only let themselves down in the MAC tournament.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," men's basketball head coach Jack Owens said at a post-game press conference on Thursday. "But, like I said, my standards for this program and where I want to be, it's nowhere near what we did this year."

Men's basketball welcomed Jack Owens and an entirely new coaching staff at the conclusion of last season. Owens then welcomed six freshmen at the start of the year, and consistently started three of them.

"I go back and watch film and there's a lot of times, it's a product of being young with the breakdowns that we had," Owens said. "But the one thing that my team has, that's a fight. They're going to compete, they're going to lay it on the line."

Last year, Miami men's basketball went 11-21 and 4-14 in conference play. This year, the RedHawks finished 16-17 overall and 8-10 in MAC play.

The last time the program finished with a conference record with eight wins was three years ago, and the last time men's basketball had more than 16 wins in a season was seven years ago.

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In the MAC pre-season poll, the RedHawks were picked to finish dead last in the East division. They finished third in the East and seventh in the MAC.

There is intangible excitement behind those numbers, and fans can feel the excitement too. Average attendance at men's basketball games this year was 1,671 -- the highest the number has been since the 2011-2012 season. There is no archived online data on attendance at women's games.

The MAC coaches expected more of Miami women's basketball and projected the team to finish fourth in the East, but the 'Hawks exceeded even those expectations by finishing second in the MAC East division and fourth overall.

The women's team finished with a 21-10 and 12-6 record in the MAC. The last time the women's team had more than 21 wins and 12 MAC wins in a season was six years ago.

The last time the women played in the MAC semi-finals was ten years ago.

"For Miami basketball, we haven't been to the semis in 10 years with a group that has lost a lot of games," women's head coach Megan Duffy said at a post-game press conference on Friday. "So we're extremely proud of what we're doing here."

Duffy welcomed an entirely new staff at the start of this year, though Director of Video Operations Justine Raterman stayed for her second year.

Unlike the men's team, the women's team only added two freshmen who saw insignificant minutes. Duffy was instead tasked with changing her returning players' mentality and creating a new culture of success. And, she did.

The Notre Dame graduate is one of just four first-year head coaches to earn more than 20 wins. She is the only female. She was also the second-fastest to 10 wins of any coach in school history in their first year. Duffy ranks second in total win improvement with 10 more wins than last season. After starting MAC play 2-5, Duffy's RedHawks won 11 of their last 12 games before their semi-finals loss.

Though ultimately losing in the women's semi-finals and in the men's quarter-finals wasn't the goal of the basketball program, Miami went down swinging.

The men's team lost by two points to No. 2 Toledo, which would go on to play in the men's MAC championship. The Rockets averaged 79 points per game, and the RedHawks held them to 71.

Falling to Central Michigan, the women's team lost by three to the No. 1 team in the MAC and held the Chippewas, who averaged 82.5 points per game, to only 71 points. CMU would go on to win the women's MAC championship by scoring 96 points.

"What was pretty cool for being their coach is to see them afterwards and obviously the tears, and they're upset," Duffy said. "I'm so proud of them because the fact that the emotion of losing a game against the No. 1 team in the league is there. I'm as big a competitor as anybody, but I just think the word 'proud' was really evident in my head."

Though notable seasons to Miami fans, both Central Michigan head coach Sue Guevara and Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk commended Miami's first-year head coaches on the improvements and competitiveness of their teams.

Even after losing, Miami basketball has established a new standard and a winning culture.

This isn't to say the men's or the women's basketball teams will win a MAC Championship next year because it's hard to think that it's possible. Then again, who thought a trip to Cleveland was possible?

Photo by Emily Simanskis | The Miami Student
Sophomore guard Lauren Dickerson has been key to women's basketball's recent success. Photo contributed by Jack Srail.