Miami Hurricanes basketball: 5 takeaways from 59-50 loss to No. 1 Virginia

Jim Larranaga, back after a one-game absence, reacts during the first half against Virginia. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

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CORAL GABLES — If you’re the type of Hurricanes fan who can laugh when your team is losing, you might have had a good chuckle at this one.

The public address announcer at the Watsco Center read a promo in the second half of Tuesday’s Miami-Virginia game: If the Hurricanes scored 70 or more points, fans could present their game ticket at a local chain, Carolina Ale House, and get six free chicken wings.

Miami entered the game having scored 70-plus in eight of 10 home games this season, so the local chain wasn’t being stingy.

However: At the time of the announcement, Miami had 26 points. There was 11:57 left in the game. Free food wasn’t in anyone’s future.

After a 59-50 home loss to the top-ranked Cavaliers (24-2, 13-1 ACC), coach Jim Larranaga wondered if the Hurricanes let the chance for an upset get to their heads.

There were precious few highlights for Miami (18-9, 7-6) in the first half, after which Virginia led 27-16, and a hot streak early in the second half was swiftly extinguished.

“When you’re playing the No. 1 team in the country it’s very likely that your players are going to be very fired up, lots of energy and really wanting to compete at a high level,” said Larranaga, healthy after a one-game absence (flu, per UM). “The complication with that is it can also speed them up. They’re hard to calm down and make a simple play. I thought the first half that really showed on us.”

UM’s record book tracks team statistical highs and lows since the club joined the ACC in 2004-05. In that time, spanning some 462 games, Miami managed fewer than 16 points once: a game at Virginia Tech in 2014, when it put up 15. Tuesday’s six made field goals (on 28 attempts) were two shy of the record low, also in 2014, against Virginia.

Virginia’s defense: as advertised

UVa is outstanding defensively, ranking No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and KenPom.com’s efficiency ratings (both defense, and overall). Miami, which missed 10 shots in a row at one point — a miserable run against a slow-ball team — closed the half 1-for-13, including an airball on the final possession by Lonnie Walker after Ja’Quan Newton dribbled to nowhere.

The visitors led by as many as 14 in the first 20. Against a team playing Virginia’s pace, that’s a mountain of a deficit. Ranked 351st of 351 Division I teams in KenPom’s tempo rating, Tony Bennett’s group makes every possession a offensive grind, and is typically in no hurry to score. And it can often score when it wants to.

According to ESPN’s broadcast, Virginia contested 20 field goals in the first half. Miami made two of those. Nine threes were contested. The Canes sank one.

Trying to pull off the upset without its best all-around player, the injured Bruce Brown, the team was anxious, Larranaga said. They had plenty of energy, not a small amount of it nervous.

Larranaga said Virginia didn’t “make us miss shots, it was anxiousness and being in this position to beat the No. 1 team in the country whose reputation precedes them in how good they are defensively so you do tend to rush a little bit.”

Credit the Cavaliers for fraying those nerves.

Chris Lykes keeps impressing

He sparked a 10-2 run to open the second half, Miami’s best stretch of the ballgame.

Miami scored eight points in a row and made 4-of-5 field goals, cutting the lead to 29-26 with 14:20 left. Virginia coach Tony Bennett stopped the bleeding with a timeout.

Lykes, who finished with a career-high and team-best 19 points, had 13 in the second half. He started it with a quick sprint to the hole for 2, splitting the pair of forward Isaiah Wilkins and guard Ty Jerome at the the elbow and sliding past center Jack Salt. (Easy to score on Virginia, all of a sudden.) He forced an end-of-clock airball, created two buckets for Ebuka Izundu and a 3-point try for Anthony Lawrence, and nearly intercepted a pass.

Bennett had seen enough after Lonnie Walker picked up a loose ball and raced down the court for an acrobatic layup. Walker is fast, but Bennett said “how fast Lykes can get down the floor” was the No. 1 issue that concerned him about Miami.

He added that it was a relief that Brown, who shot around pregame while wearing a walking boot, wasn’t available to play.

Virginia: A worthy No. 1, now and later

UM pulled to within 38-34 with a Sam Waardenburg triple at 9:25. Virginia steadily expanded its lead, thanks in large part to future NBA forward De’Andre Hunter, a 6-foot-7, 212-pound redshirt freshman who put up a game-high 22 points. Fans streamed to the exits after Waardenburg committed a four-point foul on Hunter with 3:02 left and the Cavaliers up 14. Hunter, the best player on the floor Tuesday night, hit the free throw.

“He made all the right plays,” Larranaga said.

While Virginia’s defense forced their hand, Miami can be shaky. For all Lykes’ run-and-gun, he sometimes throws ill-advised passes. A rebound grabbed on Tuesday, unless in the grip of Lawrence, didn’t always guarantee a possession. Tuesday, they were tentative too often.

The Cavaliers have a way of making teams act that way. Their paint-packing defense did its job on Walker (six points on 2-of-8 shooting, missed four 3-pointers) and Dewan Huell (zero points and struggling of late). Bennett also asked the Cavaliers to play man-to-man for a little bit, and they rewarded him there, too.

They look every bit qualified to be the No. 1 seed in what should be a wide-open NCAA Tournament.

Forwards going backward

It wasn’t a banner day for UM’s frontcourt, which wasn’t up to par with Virginia’s.

Huell’s zero-point, three-rebound evening happened over 16 minutes. He sat on the bench to start the second half. Aside from a 10-point, 4-for-7 shooting game against Wake Forest last Wednesday, the sophomore has struggled in February. Virginia Tech on Feb. 3: Three points, 0-for-5. Boston College last Saturday: Two points, 1-for-5.

“I’m not sure specifically what’s wrong,” Larranaga said of Huell, who will tangle with Syracuse’s 7-2, 236-pound junior Paschal Chukwu on Saturday. He wondered if Huell’s early-season success, and perhaps trying to do too much in its wake, got to him. He remains Miami’s leading scorer and has potential to be a game-changer, if he once again finds his game.

Huell wasn’t the only one looking Tuesday. Lawrence had two points (0-for-7 from the field) and seven rebounds in 32 minutes. Izundu was more effective, finishing with eight points — he was UM’s second-leading scorer — and five rebounds in 24.

Virginia’s frontcourt, meanwhile, got most of what it needed from Hunter, a rugged 2019 NBA draft prospect. Salt, a 6-10, 250-pound New Zealander and the largest player on the floor, grabbed seven boards. Wilkins (6-8, 205) had six points and five rebounds and, like Hunter, showed excellent instincts crashing the glass. Nearly every Cavalier had a knack for punching the ball away.

“Some of it is we need to be tougher in traffic,” Larranaga said, speaking about the rebounding woes. Some of it, he added, is being more aware.

Miami is missing Bruce Brown, bad

We’re not going to blow things way out of proportion here. Miami isn’t in Virginia’s stratosphere. That doesn’t mean the Canes can’t win an NCAA Tournament game or two. They could get hot.

Their chances are a lot better with Brown.

“It’ll be interesting to see how we respond to two consecutive losses,” Larranaga said. When UM lost Brown on Jan. 30, they weathered that storm reasonably well: three wins in a row. The Hurricanes hope he’ll be back by NCAA Tournament time.

It has been difficult without him. Larranaga, who did worry about players overextending themselves in Brown’s absence, said he’s seen an energy dip in practices. One of the players expected to step up was Walker, who slumped around the holidays but came on strong the last month. After averaging 18 points in his previous eight games and impressing Bennett — “I saw what Lonnie did to Louisville,” he said — the heralded freshman submitted a six-point, zero-board, two-assist, four-foul game at Boston College last Saturday. He made a pair of graceful layups Tuesday, but didn’t otherwise impress.

“There’s an expression that freshmen hit the wall come February,” Larranaga said, not mentioning Walker specifically. “And I see some of that. … It’s fatigue.”

Whatever the reason, UM made a healthy share of mistakes, such as on one sequence where Lykes and Newton fought for a rebound and wound up, together as one, losing it out of bounds.

Miami’s slide to the middle of the ACC pack continued, but that doesn’t mean their NCAA Tournament hopes are fading. This is still a team with a strong RPI, in a very good conference, with a not-unreasonable final five games ahead: Syracuse at home Saturday (noon, CBS), Monday at Notre Dame, and a home-road-home finish with Boston College, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

If Brown returns for Brooklyn, so much the better.