CORAL GABLES — Miami would like to have Ja’Quan Newton on the floor.
While he’s suspended, however, the Hurricanes have proven more than capable of winning.
The Hurricanes (18-8, 8-6 ACC) offset the absence of Newton, a talented scorer who can break down the stingiest of defenses, by producing four players in double figures: senior forward Kamari Murphy (career-high 15), senior guard Davon Reed (14), sophomore center Ebuka Izundu (12) and sophomore forward Anthony Lawrence (10). Freshman guard Bruce Brown had nine points.
Miami needed everyone to contribute in a tight game, which it led by one possession for most of the first half, and two scores by most of the second. Its largest lead was eight.
“We all play for each other,” said Murphy. “If everyone plays their role, we’ll get the win. … Whoever steps up that day, we’ll take it.”
What coach Jim Larranaga liked more: his team had more assists (19) and fewer turnovers (seven) Saturday than in any one of their ACC games this year. That result came against a Clemson team that leads the ACC in steals.
Brown, Reed and Lawrence each finished with five assists. Larranaga was beaming about some of those passes afterward.
Lawrence threw one behind his head to Murphy for a first-half lay-up. Freshman guard D.J. Vasiljevic stole the ball, read the fast-break defense and dropped it to Lawrence for a slam. With 1:34 left and Miami up three, Reed drove baseline and hooked a pass to the top of the key to Brown for a three-pointer. Ballgame.
“Nineteen assists,” Larranaga said. “I like ‘em all.”
The crowd of 6,987 liked when Murphy, a 6-foot-8 redshirt senior known for defense and dunks, showed he has a little offensive game. He hit a jumper early, and later used a pump-fake, then Euro-stepped his way to the basket for two points. He rattled home another jumper on the next possession.
“Teams have got to change their scouting report now,” said a smiling Murphy, who made a career-best seven shots on nine attempts, and led Miami in rebounds (nine). He admitted the Euro-step was “just instinct … I don’t think that’s part of my game.”
Murphy would like to have the soft lefty jump-hook of his 6-10 frontcourt mate, Izundu, whom he said “scores easiest out of anyone on the team.” After early-season foul trouble plagued him, Izundu is proving it. He scored 13 points in his first nine conference games, but is averaging 8.8 in his last five, beginning with a career-high 16 on Feb. 4 at North Carolina State.
Vasiljevic, a 6-2 guard from Australia, has shot mostly assisted 3s so far. But Larranaga said he attacks the basket in practice, and was quite satisfied when Vasiljevic (five points) scored Saturday by splitting a double-team and throwing an off-balance floater at the rim.
He also noted 6-10 freshman forward Dewan Huell (six points), a former McDonald’s high school All-American battling a foot injury, called his own name on a play called “Chin Rip,” where he scored on an up-and-under layup through contact.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” Larranaga said. “Young guys. You just don’t know their timetable. Bruce Brown was ready by the time the season began. … Then you’ve got guys like Dewan, who really needed to add strength. D.J. needed to play against the fast, quick athlete. In one of our early practices, I forget what Dewan did, but D.J. said, ‘Yeah, we don’t have those kind of dunks in Australia.'”
“I think our upperclassmen have played well all year, but our freshmen and sophomores are gaining more confidence.”
Reed, Miami’s steadiest player, grabbed seven boards and played excellent defense on Clemson’s 6-7 star Jaron Blossomgame (17.3 points per game), who made 13 of his last 27 threes entering the game. He missed all five he took Saturday and scored 16 points. The Tigers didn’t make a 3 in the second half (0-for-8) and finished 3-of-17.
That defense will help Miami on Monday at Virginia, currently ranked No. 14 and one of three ranked teams Miami will face in its final four games. The Hurricanes host No. 12 Duke on Saturday and finish on the road at Virginia Tech (Feb. 27) and at No. 17 Florida State (March 4). If they win one of those, it will greatly boost their resume heading into the ACC tournament (March 7-11 in Brooklyn, N.Y.).
“We don’t want to think too far down the line, but every game is crucial,” Murphy said. “We want to have a postseason. … You’ve always got to protect home court.”
For Clemson, Saturday’s loss struck a major blow. The Tigers (14-12, 4-10) have a few wins in a loaded ACC, and the fifth-toughest schedule according to KenPom.com, but are now 2-6 on the road in conference play.
“Not for me to say,” coach Brad Brownell said when asked what the loss did to his tournament chances. “We lost the game to a top-50 RPI team. I don’t think it does much.”
Both teams were hot to start, each opening 6-for-7 and 13-for-20 from the floor. That’s typical for Clemson, which was ranked 27th in offensive efficiency by KenPom.com. The Hurricanes, stingy defensively all year, settled in and held the Tigers 10 points below their season average.
Clemson cut it to two points with 11:11, and one point with 7:43, but Reed and Lawrence sank threes in response both times.
“Making both free throws, making a big three, a timely shot,” Brownell said. “We just didn’t get any momentum-type plays in the second half.”