Miami opens March Madness with 17-point rally over Cowgirls

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — When Miami coach Katie Meier reached the locker room at halftime Saturday, her players were already discussing solutions.

When they returned for the postgame celebration, Meier was teary-eyed and reflective.

In 22 seasons as a head coach, she hadn't been around many victories as satisfying — or as shocking — as this one.

Haley Cavinder scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half and made what proved to be the decisive free throw with 8.9 seconds left to complete a 17-point second half comeback and send Miami into the second round of the women's tournament with a 62-61 victory over eighth-seeded Oklahoma State. It matched the fifth-largest comeback in NCAA tourney history.

“I wanted to remind them like when life gets hard and you're going through some stuff and it doesn't look really good, I want you to remember this moment," Meier said. “I really want you to look at your teammates and remember what it took for you guys to make the comeback you did.”

In basketball terms, it took a more aggressive defense, a more selfless offense, a stronger commitment to covering up miscues and some good fortune in those wild, frantic final seconds.

The back-and-forth stretch run — a missed free throw with 8.9 seconds left followed by Anna Gret Asi's 3-pointer to make it a one-point game before a 5-second call on Miami's ensuing inbound play gave Oklahoma State one more chance — tested the nerves and emotions of everyone.

But it wasn't actually over until Naomie Alnatas' 10-foot runner rolled off the rim at the buzzer, leaving the sixth-year guard and her teammates seated on the court, lamenting the collapse.

Asi led the Cowgirls (21-16) with 16 points and four 3s. Alnatas had 10 points and Taylen Collins grabbed 16 rebounds.

Cavinder wound up with eight rebounds and six assists while Jasmyn Roberts added 12 points.

Incredibly after facing a 37-20 halftime deficit, Miami (20-12) moves on to face top-seeded Indiana (28-3) on the Hoosiers home court.

The explanation for what happened depended on the perspective.

“I was really just trying to bring a sense of calm and peace to the chaos and felt it was a combination of some people tightening up and then some people being too lax," Oklahoma State coach Jacie Hoyt said through a cracking voice and damp, reddened eyes. "I know in the future that's going to help me become a better coach."

Miami had a different take.

“I think that's March,” Cavinder said. “It was nerve-racking, but we finished the game strong and yeah, it's something I'll remember forever.”

The dejected Cowgirls won't forget it, either.

After shooting nearly 52 percent in the first half, they gave up the first 11 points of the third quarter before rallying to take a 44-40 lead into the fourth and for a moment, For a moment, Meier thought the magical comeback might be as over.

Instead, Miami opened the fourth with seven straight points as they eventually built a 53-46 lead, but the Cowgirls responded with a 10-2 spurt to take a 56-55 lead 3:22 left.

Then Cavinder and Harden answered with consecutive layups and Ja'le Williams hit a short shot to make it 61-56 with 62 seconds left before Cavinder made 1 of 2 free throws to set up the finish.

“When you say encourage that means to put courage into someone's heart and we had to put courage into each other's hearts, including mine," Meier said. “They had to convince me. This is a huge wonderful memory, of sport, but it's a lifetime memory, too.”

BIG PICTURE

Miami: The Hurricanes showed a lot of moxie by coming back. Defensively, they challenged shots, forced turnovers and found ways to make plays down the stretch. The question is whether they'll have enough energy to make life difficult against Indiana on Monday.

Oklahoma State: Hoyt is the first first-year coach to lead the Cowgirls to the tourney. But the early exit and the blown lead will be something Oklahoma State will haunt and perhaps serve as motivation through the offseason.

UP NEXT

Meier has led the Hurricanes into the second round in each of her last three tourney appearances. A year ago, though, their run ended against eventual national champion South Carolina. This year, they face another No. 1 seed on the road.

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AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25