Questions about Miami’s basketball prowess loomed after it lost to Kentucky Tuesday by a bigger margin than it had all of last year. Back in front of the home fans Saturday at the Watsco Center, the No. 8 Hurricanes responded to the doubters by downing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 62-49.
“I was very worried coming into this game. There’s been so much preseason hype because of the last two seasons,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga said. “We just have to improve our defense and our rebounding because if we defend better and rebound better we’re going to score the ball much better.”
The Canes’ showing at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena on Tuesday had much to do with center Norchad Omier’s inability to stay out of foul trouble. The preseason All-ACC selection had 20 points against the Wildcats in just 19 minutes of action, but he was limited by fouls. Against Notre Dame he collected only two fouls in 33 minutes, scoring 13 points.
“You can’t imagine how much sleep I lose because I worry about him being in foul trouble,” Larrañaga said. “When he’s playing freely and he’s not fouling and he’s not on the bench, he’s just a huge contributor in every facet of the game.”
A slow start for Miami wouldn’t be the negative it might be against a strong opponent like Kentucky. The Hurricanes (6-1, 1-0 ACC) scored only 33 first half points against Notre Dame (3-4, 0-1 ACC) and needed a late run to lead at halftime. The Irish failed to take advantage, however, dooming their chances by making only six three-pointers in 32 attempts.
“I feel like it was a wake-up call,” Florida State transfer Matthew Cleveland said, referring to Miami’s loss to No. 12 Kentucky. “We didn’t do the things we knew we were capable of, which is playing defense and rebounding. So, we knew if we took care of that we would have a good shot to win.”
The Canes were held to a season-low 62 points but survived with solid offensive performances from Cleveland (14 points), Omier (13) and guard Nijel Pack (13).
Cleveland’s four steals and junior Bensley Joseph’s perimeter defense helped shut down Irish star freshman Markus Burton. The 5-foot-11 guard came in leading ACC freshmen in scoring average at 18 points per game but was held to six on Saturday.
“He is a critical player [Matthew Cleveland] for us because he’s replacing Jordan Miller, who was kind of a jack of all trades; he did so much for us,” Larrañaga said.
Without the ability to speed the game up as they usually do, the Hurricanes needed a spark. Behind the orange and green crowd, the Canes hit seven of their 18 attempts from three, close enough to their average of 43.1% entering the game, second in the nation.
“I knew this game would be a much slower pace and much lower scoring, and we needed to adjust to that,” Larrañaga said. “We didn’t shoot great. Not terrible, 38 percent from three and 46 percent overall. We are very capable of doing much better.”
Miami will briefly stop conference play and battle Long Island University at 7 p.m. Wednesday.