Faith, family carry Univ. of Miami's Meier deep into March Madness
CORAL GABLES - Katie Meier's practices at Miami always end the same way. Every player and coach gathers around the midcourt circle, clasps the hand of the person next to them and someone then quietly offers a few words from the heart.
It's about faith.
This season, Meier's faith was tested. And rewarded.
For the first time in more than 30 years of college basketball - counting her time as a Duke player, then an assistant coach at UNC Asheville and Tulane, then eventually head coach at Charlotte and Miami - Meier is in the Sweet 16. Miami (21-12), the No. 9 seed in the Greenville 2 Region, takes on No. 4 Villanova (30-6) on Friday.
"We talk about faith a lot," Meier - Katie to most, Kate to friends and family - said after her Hurricanes kept their season alive by upsetting top-seeded Indiana in the second round. "Not religiously. I'm talking about faith, which is just confidence with a lot of patience, and we needed it. Your confidence can kind of come and go, but faith has some patience to it."
Such is the story of Miami's season.
It started ominously; Meier was suspended by the university for the first three games of the season in anticipation of NCAA sanctions related to her helping to arrange impermissible contact between transfers Haley and Hanna Cavinder and a booster. The meeting occurred before the Cavinders signed with the Hurricanes, and the final agreed-upon penalty - mainly a year of probation - marked the first time the NCAA had levied sanctions related to an investigation into name, image and likeness deals.
Those who know Meier best were furious that she was sanctioned. Faith, indeed, was tested. It was tested again when Miami found itself on the NCAA bubble going into the tournament. Tested yet again when down by 17 at the half of the first-round game against Oklahoma State. Tested yet again when Indiana, on its home floor, has the ball for the last possession and a chance to tie or win the game.
And Miami's still standing.
"There's one word that just sticks out to me: Perseverance," said Mike Lutzenkirchen, Meier's brother-in-law. "Kate is such a deep thinker. She's so intellectually smart when it comes to English, writing, and philosophy. I think that win validates her perseverance and how she doesn't coach these girls she gets blessed to have on our team -- but she gets to raise them through four or five years of their critical age of life. It's the perseverance of succeeding through life's challenges."
Oh, and there have been many.
Meier never met her father; Gerry Meier, who played for Ray Meyer at DePaul, died in a plane crash four months before she was born. Meier became part of what she has often called "a Brady Bunch family," one that was formed when her mother married a widowed man and each brought four kids into the mix.
Another tragedy hit her family nine years ago. Meier wears a pin with "43″ on it to every game - a nod to the jersey number of her nephew Philip Lutzenkirchen, Mike's son and a star tight end at Auburn who died in June 2014 in a car crash in which he was not wearing a seat belt. The family quickly started the Lutzie 43 Foundation in his memory, trying to inspire people to make better decisions as drivers and friends.
The Brady Bunch days formed her. Family, Meier learned, isn't always what you're born into, but who you love. Her players become family every year.
"She's such a role model, someone you can lean on, no matter what," Miami forward Karla Erjavec said. "You can come in, you can cry in her office, you can laugh in her office, she's always going to be her authentic self."
Meier didn't need a Sweet 16 to prove anything. She's a past Associated Press national coach of the year, a past USA Basketball coach of the year, a member of the Miami Sports Hall of Fame and the Hall of Honor at Duke, her alma mater. Her legacy is secure.
But getting her to this stage also means plenty to her team, especially after the challenge of this season.
"Learning about who she is, the competitor she is, you can see why Miami was so attractive to us," Hanna Cavinder said.
Meier's first NCAA Tournament game was when she played for Duke in 1987. She had what was then only the fourth triple-double in the history of the women's tournament and Duke rolled past Manhattan. In the second round two nights later, Duke lost.
Thus started the pattern: The Sweet 16, somehow, always escaped Meier's reach.
As an assistant coach, Meier also was part of teams that made the second round in 1997 and 2000. As a head coach, Meier had another second-round chance in 2011. And 2012. And 2015. And 2017. And 2019. And 2022. Never got the breakthrough.
"We're here," Miami forward Lola Pendande said. "We're really here."
Down 17 to Oklahoma State in Round 1, Miami pulled off a comeback so good it tied the fifth-biggest in NCAA women's tournament history. It happened after a halftime where there were plenty of tears, none of them related to what was happening on the scoreboard.
"I'm an emotional coach, if you haven't noticed, but I got teary-eyed to remind them when life gets hard and doesn't look good, just remember this moment," Meier said.
That moment won't be forgotten. Nor will beating Indiana, on Destiny Harden's shot in the final seconds. Clemson also happened to win Monday night, prevailing at home in a Women's NIT game. Amanda Butler, one of Meier's former assistants and still someone close to the Miami coach, is coach at Clemson. Butler's mother called her to celebrate after that win.
"I'm proud of you," she said, "but I was watching Kate's game."
Meier allows herself a postgame treat only after wins: Pizza. There was pizza on Saturday. There was pizza on Monday. Pizza on Friday would probably represent the best couple slices she's ever had.
Faith would be rewarded, again.
"For her to finally get through to the Sweet 16, with all the challenges she had, and it happens this year," Mike Lutzenkirchen said. "A lot of faith went into this."
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