Eight NCAA championship banners and a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 rabid blue-clad Kentucky fans greeted the University of Miami basketball team at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night. The visiting Hurricanes were hyped and eager to prove worthy of their No. 8 ranking.
Instead, chants of “Over-rated!” echoed throughout the building as the Canes suffered a humiliating 95-73 loss to the 12th-ranked Wildcats in the ACC-SEC Challenge.
It was Miami’s first loss of the season, and a reminder that there is much work to be done before thinking of a return to the Final Four.
UM coach Jim Larranaga had said from the preseason that he was most concerned about the team’s defense, and Tuesday’s result will not ease that worry.
“We couldn’t really defend them in any way,” Larranaga said. “Their size, athletic ability, shooting ability. We just couldn’t guard them. I thought the first team to 80 would win and we just couldn’t score. We played totally out of character on offense and that impacted our defense, which unfortunately is a weakness of ours.”
The Hurricanes faced a team that likes to run and gun as much as they do, and everyone expected a high-scoring game from both teams. Miami averaged 89 points per game heading into Tuesday’s contest and Kentucky averaged 94.3.
“We’re going to need a neck brace after this one,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said before the game.
For a while, it was the fun, fast-paced game pundits predicted.
Wooga Poplar scored eight of Miami’s first 10 points. Kentucky then went on an 11-1 run to take a 10-point lead. The Hurricanes scored 18 of the next 20 points to take a six-point lead, hit a scoreless drought and trailed by five at halftime.
But everything went Kentucky’s way in the second half, the Canes unraveled, and by the end of the night, the statistics told the story.
Kentucky outshot Miami 60 percent to 44 percent from the field and 43 percent to 26 percent from beyond the arc. The Wildcats held a 48 to 32 edge in points in the paint and scored 23 fast break points compared to seven for UM. The assist-to-turnover gap was also staggering. Kentucky had 26 assists with just eight turnovers. Miami had eight assists and 15 turnovers.
Hurricanes guard Nijel Pack, coming off a 28-point performance against Kansas State, went 1-of-6 for two points on Tuesday with three assists and three turnovers. He missed all three of his three-point attempts after making seven three-pointers against K-State.
Asked what Kentucky did to contain Pack, Larranaga said: “It wasn’t Nijel Pack. It was our team. I think the hype of the game, the crowd, our guys wanted to play well individually. And you can’t win individually. Kentucky showed us the facts. You’ve got to share the ball, find the open man and get assists. That’s what they did, and we didn’t.”
UM’s other starting guards, Matt Cleveland and Bensley Joseph, combined for nine points, one assist and four turnovers.
Norchad Omier led UM with 20 points despite playing just 19 minutes and fouling out. He played only eight minutes in the first half after picking up two early fouls. Joseph played six minutes in the first half.
Larranaga felt Omier and Joseph were frustrated on the bench, anxious to go back in. “Those are two of our really critical guys, Joseph with his defense and Norchad’s rebounding,” Larranaga said.
Poplar finished with 19 points and Christian Watson came off the bench for 10 points. Freshman guard Keyshawn George played 23 minutes, scored five points, had two rebounds, two assists and one turnover.
Larranaga said Miami’s lack of size was a factor, as it has been all season, but it was the first time the Hurricanes were unable to compensate with high-octane scoring.
“We’re not very tall, as you can tell,” Larranaga said. “They had three or four inches on us at the point guard position, five or six inches at the two-guard spot, three or four inches at the three, two or three at the four and five spots. We’re small, which means we must play very good offense and score regularly and help each other defensively, and we did neither.”
Freshman Reed Sheppard came off the bench to lead Kentucky with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting. He made five three-pointers, had five rebounds, and four assists. Antonio Reeves scored 18, Tre Mitchell had 14, freshman Rob Dillingham had 12 off the bench, and Justin Edwards added 11.
Larranaga heaped praise on Sheppard and Dillingham. “Those are two NBA guys,” he said. “They’re terrific college players, but they’ll play beyond, for sure. They can shoot it, handle it. They share the ball extremely well.
“You might look at (Sheppard) and think he’s not that athletic, but try to score on him, he’s moving his feet, using his hands. He comes up with a lot of deflections and steals. He had four assists and one turnover. And Dillingham had nine assists and no turnovers. That’s a pretty good night from your bench.”
The Hurricanes (5-1) are back home Saturday at noon against Notre Dame.