For so long, University of Miami basketball players spent Selection Sunday on the dreaded bubble, watching TV somewhere in Coral Gables, hoping and praying, but knowing deep down they probably wouldn’t get an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
The Canes got invited only once in the past decade.
This year, they got to experience how the big-time programs do it: Crammed into an out-of-town hotel suite, orange and green balloons decorating the lobby, conference championship trophy in hand, pieces of net tied onto their championship caps, and CBS cameras rolling for the live celebration shot. The Hurricanes’ only concern was whether they would be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed.
They started the day by making history, winning the school’s first conference title with an 87-77 victory over crowd-favorite North Carolina in a sizzling Atlantic Coast Conference championship game that featured a record 25 three-pointers, 15 lead changes and 10 ties.
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Their day ended with news that they had been assigned the No. 2 seed in the East Region, tying the 1998-99 team for highest seed in school history. They will face Pacific (22-12) in their opener in Austin at 2:10 p.m. Friday on TNT.
If they win, they play Sunday against the winner of the Illinois-Colorado game.
Every team that previously had won the ACC regular-season title outright and the ACC tournament had earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA had UM ranked fifth of the 68 teams, one spot short of a top seed.
But the Canes didn’t groan when their seed popped onto the screen. They cheered. Their coach had just reminded them to savor the moment.
Before the announcement, UM coach Jim Larranaga muted the TV, and told his players: “Everyone has the same record, 0 and 0. Every team shows up to play their best. The team that plays the best moves on. … You guys have been awesome all season long.
“You’re the best basketball team I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached some great teams. You guys have proven so much to me. I want you to enjoy this. Have more fun than any other team. This is what college basketball is all about.”
Larranaga later said he “couldn’t care less” about the seeding. He was more concerned with which day the Canes would play, and was happy to know they’ll have an extra day to rest and prepare.
“We went through a grueling three-day tournament and we’re about to begin another tournament, so we need to sharpen our saw,” the coach said.
The saw reference was from his favorite book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The anecdote tells of two lumberjacks in a tree-cutting contest. The loser cut nonstop and can’t figure out why he lost. The winner reveals he took a break every hour to sharpen his saw.
Sixth-year senior Julian Gamble said the Canes are enjoying all this celebrating, and want more.
“After we clinched the outright regular-season title at home, we were saying, ‘Wasn’t that the funnest thing you’ve ever done?’ We want to go to Greensboro and do it again. Bring those same scissors. We’re a little more experienced at cutting the nets now. But we know we have another one to get. It’s not going to be easy at all.”
He didn’t care about the seeding. “All we care about is we have the opportunity to play another day.”
It’s a good thing they pause basketball games for halftime because everyone playing in and watching Sunday’s game needed to catch their breath as the top-seeded Hurricanes and . third-seeded Tar Heels put on a thrill-a-minute game for the ages. Veteran ESPN commentators Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps, who have seen their fair share of thrillers over the years, were practically hyperventilating over the pace of the game and crisp shooting.
When everyone’s head had stopped spinning, the Hurricanes had become the first team from outside the state of North Carolina to sweep the conference regular-season title outright and the tournament title.
Nearly 22,000 disappointed Tar Heels fans exited the Greensboro Coliseum as a few hundred UM fans gathered behind the Hurricanes bench to celebrate. The team danced at midcourt as confetti and streamers fell from the rafters. The pep band belted out the UM fight song. Sebastian the Ibis led his C-A-N-E-S chant.
Then, the UM players and coaches climbed atop the ladder one by one to clip their piece of net. They used the same pair of dull scissors they used to cut down the net at the BankUnited Center after winning the ACC regular-season title. The scissors have become a good-luck charm.
Sophomore guard Shane Larkin led the Canes with 28 points and seven assists. Senior Trey McKinney Jones (living up to his first name) had a career-high 20 points, thanks in large part to six three-pointers. Rion Brown added 12, and Gamble provided nonstop energy, finishing with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Larkin was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Durand Scott made the all-tournament first team.
P.J. Hairston led the Tar Heels with 28 points and was 6-of-13 from three-point range.
“Shane and Durand have huge hearts. They’ve led this team from the start. Their teammates have followed their lead and given us the toughness it takes to win a tournament like this against the best teams in the conference,” Larranaga said.
Roy Williams waited outside the UM locker room after the game, and then went in to talk to the Hurricanes and congratulate them. He was effusive in his praise for UM in his news conference.
“Congratulations to Miami. It has been a phenomenal year for them, and hopefully will continue to be,” Williams said. “They won the regular season and then validated it by winning the conference tournament as well. They’ve got four guys in double figures. Shane Larkin is phenomenal, he really is. He’s probably the most effective player in our league. They’re really a big-time basketball team.”
Reggie Johnson, who grew up in North Carolina and had gotten Williams’ autograph as a kid, was awed by the coach’s post-game visit. He couldn’t wait to get back to Coral Gables, where “we’re finally getting some love for basketball, and football’s on the backburner.”