AUSTIN — The Hurricanes had just clinched a spot in the Sweet 16, just survived a tense, physical game against the University of Illinois on Sunday night, and giddy University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga could not contain his excitement.
TV cameras captured him in the Erwin Center locker room as he told his team: “I asked you guys to be fighters. And you know what I saw out there? Muhammad Ali!”
Larranaga then broke into an Ali Shuffle that within hours had become an Internet sensation.
The coach, still in his dark suit and tie, made like Ali, shuffling his feet with remarkable speed and stabbing at the air over and over again. His players leaped out of their folding chairs, laughing hysterically, and joined their coach in the dance. It was the perfect picture of unbridled joy.
Larrañaga said at the start of the NCAA Tournament that he was determined to be the coach who had the most fun. He urged his team to be the team that has the most fun. So far, they seem to be tied with Florida Gulf Coast on the fun meter.
UM is headed to its first Sweet 16 since 2000 and just the second in school history. The second-seeded Hurricanes play third-seeded Marquette on Thursday at 7:15 p.m. in Washington. Larrañaga and his staff will be returning to the site of their greatest triumph. In 2006, at the Verizon Center, Larrañaga’s 11th-seeded George Mason team knocked off top seed Connecticut to earn a berth in the Final Four. They were the first double-digit seed ever to reach the Final Four.
The Canes nearly didn’t get to Washington. But clutch performances by Shane Larkin and Rion Brown kept the dream season alive.
“It was very exciting out there,’’ said Brown, a junior guard who led the Hurricanes with 21 points, including five three-pointers and a pair of free throws down the stretch. “I had a blast. I thank my teammates because without them penetrating and kicking it out, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get those shots. They did a great job of finding me.”
Like a boxing match
Senior center Julian Gamble compared the game to a boxing match.
“They gave us their absolute best shot,” Gamble said. “Illinois is a great team. We were lucky enough to get it, and we really pulled it out with poise. It just goes to show that we can win any type of game that you throw at us. To be able to continue this dream season, it’s hard to put into words.”
Things were not as animated over in the Illinois locker room. The Illini had fought their hearts out and came up four points short.
“It was a battle, like a heavyweight boxing match out there,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Unfortunately, we came out on the short end of it.
“The worst part for me is that I’ve got [five] seniors, and we won’t get to go to practice on Monday and Tuesday. That’s the part that’s hardest to swallow.”
Illini fans complained after the game that UM benefited from a bad call by an official.
Replays indicate that the Hurricanes might have caught a lucky break on an out-of-bounds call late in the game. Kenny Kadji and Nnanna Egwu went up for a ball under the Illinois basket with 40 seconds remaining, and it appeared the ball went out of bounds off Kadji’s hand. The officials awarded the ball to the Hurricanes.
Illini fans went nuts and booed.
Kadji later said he didn’t know who touched the ball last.
“There were so many hands,” he said. “I don’t know who touched it last. I just tried to make a play on the ball and everybody was getting out there and there were a couple of hands.”
Hard to officiate
Groce didn’t let Egwu answer questions about that play at the news conference. He said he wanted to handle that topic. Although he praised the job the officials had done all weekend, he clearly felt that was an incorrect call.
“I thought the officiating Friday and [Sunday] was tremendous,” he said. “These are the best of the best. My second thought is, you saw the same video I did.
“... It’s a hard game to officiate. Both teams are physical, both teams desiring the same thing. Fifty-fifty calls are hard sometimes. That’s how he saw the play in life speed, and I certainly respect him and respect the call he made.”
The Hurricanes returned to campus early Monday afternoon and are scheduled to depart for Washington on Tuesday night.