Norchad Omier has played only eight games for the University of Miami men’s basketball team, but the high-energy Nicaraguan power forward has already become a fan favorite.
He has the Watsco Center student section and announcer chanting “Baby Food!” each time he scores, a tribute to the phrase he playfully yells to teammates when he sees a mismatch under the basket and wants the ball. It is his way of saying, “Feed me.”
Omier had little opportunity to demand baby food during Wednesday night’s thrilling 68-61 win over Rutgers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge because he was up against Scarlet Knights 6-11 center Cliff Omoruyi, who weighs 240 pounds and has a 7-foot-plus wingspan.
Before the game, UM coach Jim Larranaga said Omoruyi’s dunking ability and dominance around the rim conjured memories of Wilt Chamberlain. Omoruyi showed, especially in the opening minutes of the second half, that he was every bit as good as advertised.
The battle of the big men was highly anticipated by fans of both teams. And they delivered.
“That was like two Sumo wrestlers, down on the low block, in the paint, wrestling for every inch of the court,” Larranaga said. “Omoruyi is a big-time athlete, incredible length and jumping ability and Norchad played him to a standstill. He’s not as tall, but he’s such a workhorse. He’s a relentless worker.”
Omier, who is 6-7 and 248 pounds, made his mark first with a layup for Miami’s first points of the game. He followed up that play with a defensive rebound on Rutgers’ first shot attempt. Omier had 10 points by halftime and held his own the rest of the night. He finished with 17 points and nine rebounds.
“Omier is an elite rebounder, he’s a monster,” said Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell. “He’s got quick feet, is as strong as can be.”
But it was Hurricanes guards Isaiah Wong, Jordan Miller, Nijel Pack and Bensley Joseph who came to the rescue when Miami fell behind by 11 in the second half and it looked like the game was getting away from them.
Wong went on a solo 7-0 run to close the gap to three with 11:40 to go. He tipped in a Miller missed layup, stole a pass at the other end of the floor and raced back to hit a three and then grabbed another steal and converted a pull-up jumper.
Joseph, known for his relentless defense, stole the ball twice, which led to two UM baskets.
“When Bensley came in, everything changed, he was awesome,” Larranaga said, pointing out Joseph’s steals, blocked shot, assists and his few baskets.
Pack hit a three to tie the score at 56-56 with just over six minutes remaining and the crowd went wild. Miller followed that up with another three to put the Canes up 59-56. But the Scarlet Knights made big plays, too. Caleb McConnell’s three off a UM turnover tied it up 61-61 with under three minutes to go.
Omier broke the tie to give UM the lead with 1:22 to go, Miller grabbed a defensive rebound and Pack hit a three to widen the lead to 66-61. Miami closed the game on a 7-0 run. After missing eight of their nine first-half three-point attempts, the Canes made five threes in the second half.
“Nijel got off to a slow start, but when it came down to crunch time, he was clutch,” Larranaga said. “And Isaiah was just Isaiah. He does so many things well.”
Miller had 17 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Wong scored 16 points and had four assists.
Pikiell had high praise for the Miami team.
“That was a great, great college basketball game,” Pikiell said. “They’re really talented and their guards made a few more plays than us. When you play a team that talented, they were an Elite Eight team last year, they were a couple points better than us. Tip of the hat. They have a really good coach and really good players, very experienced team, but we did a lot of good things, too.”
Larranaga said: “Those two teams battled from start to finish at a very high level. I’m very, very proud of our guys and very impressed with Rutgers. Every guy contributed in one way or another. I’m very, very happy.”
After a slow first half — four points, one rebound — Omoruyi took over early in the second half.
He scored 10 of Rutgers’ first 12 points after intermission to spark a 12-2 run that opened a 10-point lead for the Scarlet Knights.
The second half began with a three-point play by Omoruyi that put Rutgers up by four and drew a loud roar from the sizable contingent of Rutgers fans in the crowd, all wearing scarlet red shirts. Early in the game they began chanting “R-U! R-U!” and for a few minutes anyway it sounded as if the game were being played at Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Rutgers fans got loud again when Omoruyi slammed down emphatic back-to-back dunks and then nailed a three-pointer.
Miller said that at that point, during a time out, Larranaga asked his players a simple question: “Are you guys going to start playing?” And so, they did.
“He knew we are a better team than we were showing, so we just got back to playing our basketball,” Miller said. “A lot of guys made really big plays down the stretch. Nobody’s surprised. Everyone on this team is capable of doing something spectacular.”
Omoruyi was averaging 16.8 points and 10 rebounds heading into Wednesday’s game. He had 16 points and nine rebounds against UM. McConnell also scored 16.
Miami improved to 7-1 with the win. Rutgers dropped to 5-2.
Wong, a native of Piscataway, said the win was extra special for him because he grew up across from the Rutgers campus.
“Being from across the street from Rutgers it was a great feeling playing against them,” Wong said. “My whole four years I wanted to play them at least once. I’d love to play them over there, but it’s probably too late for that.”
The game was preceded by an on-court ceremony celebrating Larranaga’s 700 wins. He reached the milestone with a 74-64 road win against his alma mater, Providence, on Nov. 19. Larranaga was presented with a framed UM jersey with No. 700 on the front.
Miami heads to Louisville this weekend for its ACC opener Sunday at 1 p.m. and returns home Dec. 7 vs. Cornell.