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Women's basketball looks to sustain success next season

Two weeks ago, Miami's women's basketball season ended in a 67-63 loss to Western Kentucky in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament.

The game - where the RedHawks led by eight at the half, but were outscored 24-12 in the third quarter leading to the narrow defeat - epitomizes Miami's season.

The 'Hawks won 11 games through the months of January and February --good for the program's fifth-longest winning streak -- but lost three of their last four before the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

Finishing third in the MAC after the regular season, Miami secured a first-round MAC-Tournament bye and handily defeated Toledo 72-54 in the quarterfinals, but Ohio crushed the RedHawks 74-48 in the semifinals.

"The hard part was keeping [the streak] sustained for the whole season," head coach Megan Duffy said. "That's what we saw a little bit at the end of the season -- not having enough pieces playing well together at the right time. But, I mean, I don't know how many other programs in the country could say they won 11 straight. I thought that was something to be proud of, too."

In her second year as head coach, Duffy led her team to finish 23-9 overall and 13-5 in the MAC. After last year's 21-11 (12-6 MAC) record, this is the first time the women's basketball team earned back-to-back 20-win seasons since the 1980s.

The RedHawks were led largely by experience and, for all but five games, their starting lineup consisted entirely of juniors and seniors.

Junior guard Lauren Dickerson had already amassed 1,000 heading into the 2018-19 season, but senior forward Kendall McCoy and senior guard Leah Purvis joined the elite list during the year. The threesome made history, as they became the first trio to play together with 1,000 points each.

"It's special to have three players on one team to have scored that many points," Duffy said. "I think Leah's the one that sticks out that she scored that many points because we looked at her so much, especially this year, as a defensive stopper, and doing whatever it takes."

Senior forward Kristen Levering became a dependable sixth woman, as she often replaced McCoy or junior forward Savannah Kluesner when the RedHawks needed a defensive boost and rebounding.

Levering averaged only 2.4 points per game last year but collected 7.1 per game this season, and she pulled down an average of 5.2 rebounds per game compared to 1.3 last year.

McCoy, Purvis, Levering and other starter senior guard Baleigh Reid helped the RedHawks to their best finish since 2007-08 (23-11 overall). They were part of Duffy's historic turnaround last season and bought into her game plan again this year.

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"The four seniors, can't say enough about them continuing to buy in and accepting change - that's always a hard thing," Duffy said. "They were great the entire year with that."

Another standout was Kluesner, who was the most improved RedHawk between 2017-18 and 2018-19. She started in all but four games, and her average points per game improved from 8.4 to 13.4. Her average rebounds per game jumped from 4.6 to 8.1.

Freshman guard Nia Clark started six of her nine games played and averaged 10.6 points, before succumbing to a knee injury that kept her out for the rest of the season.

"We're excited about getting her back and having an offseason to rehab and really improve," Duffy said. "That hurt us a little bit with our depth and athleticism."

Clark and Miami will petition the NCAA to grant the RedHawk a redshirt year.

Though star performances from upperclassmen led Miami to its 11-game win streak, the stars' consistency fizzled down the stretch. For the RedHawks' last four games, Dickerson, McCoy and Kluesner all averaged several points less than their season averages, while Purvis, Reid and Levering averaged slightly better.

"We played really good competition down the stretch and, when you get to that point and you're playing with a championship and you're playing Ohio [University], who's at the top of the league, you have to play great to beat them," Duffy said. "I didn't think we played our best game that one night, and trying to get that balance of all players playing great at the same time, we just didn't do.

The Bobcats would go on to make the WNIT quarterfinals, whereas the RedHawks suffered the first-round loss.

For Miami, which was picked to finish second in the MAC East and indeed finished there, Duffy is pleased with her team's play, though unsustained through the last stretch of the season.

"We weren't catching people off guard anymore, and people took us a lot more seriously, and there's a little bit more of a target on our back and pressure situations down the stretch in March, which is a great thing for your program to be in," Duffy said. "I think that's one of the big things moving forward -- figuring out one, how to keep it at that level, and how do you win some of those really close games down the stretch."