CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- If there was one thing that could overshadow the announcement of the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations against the University of Miami, that thing would be a down-to-the-wire defensive battle in the sold-out Bank United Center.
On a night where Miami president Donna Shalala issued a convicting statement in response to the conclusion of the NCAA’s investigation of the university, the Miami Hurricanes basketball team stayed determined to squeak out yet another ACC win, improving to 13-0 in conference play and 22-3 overall on the season.
This time the antagonist was Virginia, a team that sports one the nation’s best defenses and held Miami under 55 points for the second time in as many games and only the 5th time this season in the 54-50 Canes victory.
“Every time we play Virginia, it’s always a battle,” said Reggie Johnson, who had seven rebounds and eight points, including the tie-breaking lay-up with 5.7 seconds remaining in the game following a deft Shane Larkin pass down low.
Virginia plays a very slowed-down, low-possession game, so both teams envisioned a defensive slugfest from the beginning. But it was Julian Gamble who set the tone early, blocking three Akil Mitchell shots on consecutive attempts four minutes into the game, a series that earned him the 10th-best SportsCenter Top Ten play of the day and a roaring ovation from the crowd.
“I really pride myself in protecting the rim,” Gamble said. “I joke with my teammates about having block parties during these games. I’m really having a good time.”
The Canes, just like in their previous game against Clemson on Sunday night, were held under 25 points in a first half that ended after an astute defensive possession by Durand Scott settled a 24-22 Hurricane lead, eight of those 24 owned by Gamble.
The Canes still shot 50 percent in the first half and 46.8 percent on the game; according to Larranaga, it was the low possessions and slow pace that resulted in a tight and low score. The 63-year old leader claimed that it is the style of play that differentiates his team’s recent blowout victories, such as those against Duke (90-63) and North Carolina (87-61), to their closer outcomes.
“The games that we have been able to get a lead have been during up-tempo games where there are lots of possessions,” Larranaga said. “These last three games have had much lower possessions. The game is slower; there haven’t been as much opportunities to score. Tony Bennett is a great defensive coach. A lot of times defensive battles are lower scoring games.”
There is a fear that the Canes, who started off conference play ridiculously hot and blew out teams such as Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, and Boston College at home, might be regressing after three straight tight games. Yet Larranaga attributes the battles to the quality of the ACC as a conference and calls the victories building blocks for later down the road.
“First of all our last three games have been a good indication of how good the ACC really is," Larranaga said. "Teams in our league have so much physical talent…and then some incredible shooters. Even though you saw a defensive battle tonight you also saw some incredible shot making by Harris and then (Evan) Nolte at the end. I think it’s always important to build and it’s easier to build on victories than it is losses. It’s much better…the guys feel much better connected after a victory. This last week has been a great experience. Those game-winning shots, you’ll never forget those for the rest of your life.”
Miami has just five games left and only three remaining home games, all of which are close to selling out just like tonight’s match against Virginia, the fourth sell-out of the season.
With all of the media attention and the announcement of the NCAA’s concluded investigation against the University of Miami, it would be easy to say that there are enough distractions to derail Larrinaga’s squad between now and the NCAA tournament. The determined general is having none of it.
“We can only focus on the things that we have control over. We’re not really watching what other people are doing as much as staying focused on what we can do. We have nothing to do with the investigation,” stated Larranaga. “These guys have been through an awful lot. Nothing’s been given to them. They’ve had to earn every victory.”