Miami Sadness: Hurricanes fall to UConn in Final Four semifinals of NCAA Tournament
The buzz around the University of Miami team hotel was palpable for days leading up to the Hurricanes’ Final Four game against Connecticut late Saturday night.
Thousands of fans and former players spanning all the eras, milled around the lobby, marveling at how a program that didn’t even exist in the mid-’80s and then held open tryouts for its resurrected team on the student union patio, could find itself two wins from a national title.
But there they were, in the 72,000-seat NRG Stadium, hoping to keep their magical ride going in front of the largest and most boisterous UM basketball crowd in history.
The Huskies proved too much for the Hurricanes. The four-time national champions, playing in their sixth Final Four, looked like a team that had been there before and overwhelmed Miami 72-59 to advance to Monday’s championship game. The 59 points was a season low for the UM team and 21 points below its average.
After the game, UM coach Jim Larranaga gathered his players and told them of the theme of the old T.V. show “Wide World of Sports,” which was the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
“I said, `We experienced both,’’ the coach said. “Last weekend it was the thrill of victory and accomplishing something that Miami had never done. Even last year, we got to the Elite Eight. We were not able to move forward. This year we did.
“But today was the agony of defeat. This will last a long time. The guys will have great memories, though, of the entire season, some of the great wins we have had. I told them all along these memories last a lifetime. You’ll be telling your grandchildren about it one day.”
Miami gave fans a glimmer of hope by closing the deficit to eight points late in the game, but missed its final seven shots and scored no field goals in the final six minutes.
UConn had beaten its previous four NCAA Tournament opponents by an average margin of 22.5 points, and the Huskies displayed their dominance again.
Miami’s exit was the second South Florida heartbreak of the night.
When the Hurricanes took the court for warmups before the night’s second semifinal, their neighbors from 50 miles up the road, the Florida Atlantic Owls, were trudging to the tunnel in disbelief after their fairy tale March run ended with a San Diego State buzzer-beater.
Miami’s loss was not as dramatic.
The Hurricanes had made a name for themselves with their high-octane offense, which averaged 80 points per game this season. They poured in 85 points against Indiana, 89 against top-seeded Houston and 88 against second-seeded Texas in their previous three NCAA Tournament games.
It was a different story on Saturday. They scored just 24 points against UConn in the first half.
UConn took control of the game early, racing to a 14-4 lead in the opening minutes as the Hurricanes, who looked nervous and rushed, struggled to get anything going. Miami missed 12 of its first 13 shots.
Larranaga had a sense the team, which had been so cohesive all season, was off mentally from the start. He reminded his team at the meeting Friday night that the mental and emotional preparation had to be as it had every other game.
“I think they listened, but you could really tell that mentally and emotionally we were not together,” he said. “All season long we’ve been so well-connected, offensively, sharing the ball, being one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. What did we score today? 59. Is that our low for the season? We were just out of character. “
The coach said his players lost their focus.
“Being in the Final Four for the first time in school’s history, the guys being a little bit anxious, and we really never were able to just relax and play our game,” he said. “We were pretty much out of character the whole night. But these guys are great, great guys, great players. We’ve had a sensational season. And they’ll have memories that will last a lifetime, and so will I.”
At halftime, one of the UM players wrote on the grease board, “Share the ball.”
“Then we went out, start the second half, we dribbled one out of bounds, took a quick shot....It was very, very hard,” Larranaga said.
The Huskies played tenacious defense at the point of attack, made the Miami guards uncomfortable and dominated the post. The Hurricanes even had a rare wardrobe malfunction. Nijel Pack’s shoe broke, he was unable to tie the laces, so a spare show was retrieved from the locker room.
The Hurricanes had no answer for Adama Sanogo, who had a game-high 13 points at the half and finished with 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting and 10 rebounds.
Asked what UM’s defensive gameplan was for Sanogo, Larranaga replied: “Obviously what we tried to do not only didn’t work, I couldn’t even recognize it. I think, again, offensively we were out of sync but defensively we were too. Everybody was playing so hard to guard their man, there was no help like we intended.
“So they threw it over the top. He got a layup. They ran a ball screen. He rolled. He scored in that situation. He got offensive rebounds. He was blocking us out. He’s a terrific player. I think he earned all of his points. But I think we could have done a significantly better job on him if we could have executed our game plan.”
Isaiah Wong led Miami with 15 points and Jordan Miller had 11. Norchad Omier was limited to eight points and seven rebounds. Nijel Pack was 3 of 10 for eight points with one assist. Wooga Poplar went 0 for 7.
Miami shot 25 percent from the field in the first half and fell behind 37-24.
Huskies coach Dan Hurley credited his team’s defense for Miami’s woes.
“I just loved the way we guarded them,” he said. “One of the best offenses in the country and we really disrupted them. They had been on such a roll coming in. We body blowed them until we could knock them out.”
UConn opened a 20-point lead, 46-26, early in the second half and it appeared the game was out of reach for the Hurricanes. But Miami fans hung onto a sliver of hope because the “Cardiac Canes,” as this team has been nicknamed, had pulled off some stunning comebacks in recent weeks.
In their NCAA Tournament opener against Drake, the Canes trailed by eight with five minutes to go and rallied for the victory. Last weekend, No. 2 seed Texas led Miami by 13 midway through the second half, and the Hurricanes chipped away and came out with a seven-point win.
UM went on a 7-0 run, got to within eight points of the Huskies on a Wong three-pointer with 11 minutes to go, but never got closer. Despite 13 turnovers by the Huskies, the Hurricanes never were able to get a foothold on the game. The few times they cut the gap to single digits, UConn scored on the other end.
“They are a great team, made the shots when they needed to,” Pack said. “We were able to cut it down, but they got some crucial offensive rebounds. We just weren’t able to get it close enough...it stinks it had to end like this, but we did some great things this season and we should all hold our heads high.”
The Miami students, who scooped up the 700 designated tickets within hours last weekend, packed the end zone and outnumbered UConn students. They screamed their lungs out and waved hand-made posters. But they didn’t get the ending they had hoped for.
No matter the result, former Hurricanes players said this Final Four run will have a lasting impact on the program. Among the 30-plus former players who attended the game were Darius Rice, John Salmons, Jack McClinton, Constantin Popa, Mario Bland and Steve Edwards.
“It means so much, because at the end of the day, Miami is an amazing university, but it’s never been known as a basketball school,” McClinton said. “We had been to the tournament, made the round of 32, but it’s amazing to see these guys take it to the next level. Elite Eight last year and now the Final Four.
“Coach [Jim] Larranaga’s done a great job of having these guys buy into what he’s saying, and they deserve to be here. This is not a fluke. Hopefully, we will finally get the respect we deserve and our former players are bonding over this and building a brotherhood like the Dukes and other blue bloods have. UM basketball is here to stay.”