CORAL GABLES — Jim Larranaga liked how his team performed against Syracuse’s challenging 2-3 zone defense.
Just not on Saturday.
“I thought yesterday and Thursday in practice we did a great job,” he said. “Moved the ball, found the open man, made some good shots. I thought were very well prepared to play a great game today.”
Turns out, Larranaga dryly admitted, the real-deal Orange are a bit more effective defensively than the Hurricanes’ scout-teamers.
At the bottom of UM’s 3-point shooting column sat an ugly number: 7-of-31, and the scoreboard read 62-55, the final tallies of Miami’s third loss in a row. It was an oft-sluggish game in front of 6,879 at the Watsco Center, after which Miami (18-8, 7-7 ACC) fell into an eighth-place tie with the Orange (18-9, 7-7) and Florida State.
The Hurricanes, faced with a long, lean defense, were tied 25-25 at halftime, then fell behind by 12 points and erased the Syracuse lead with 9:21 left. It was close down the stretch, but Syracuse’s Tyus Battle hit the game’s biggest shot: a 3 with 1:26 left and the Orange up by three.
Battle, one of three Syracuse players who played all 40 minutes, caused Lonnie Walker (12 points) to foul out with 40 seconds left. The Orange’s rotation was essentially six-deep, compared to UM’s eight-man lineup. But they snuffed out several Miami runs.
The Canes had a chance late, closing to 58-55 after Sam Waardenburg grabbed an offensive rebound, drew a foul and hit a pair of free throws. He combined with Ja’Quan Newton to trap the Orange into a timeout with 21 seconds left.
Syracuse’s Marek Dolezaj (11 points) sank a pair of free throws with 19 seconds left to seal a win and spur a loud visiting crowd to chant “let’s go Orange” on the way out of the building. Teammate Frank Howard led all scorers with 18 and had six assists. Oshae Brissett had 16 points and 12 boards.
Chris Lykes had 14 points and was the Hurricanes’ most effective player.
The Hurricanes knew they had to hit from deep. They had little choice. Not only was Syracuse playing its standard 2-3 zone, which makes it hard for teams to get into the perimeter, but its size advantage was much larger than usual: its starters went 6-5, 6-6, 6-8, 6-9 and 7-2, while Miami’s were 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 and 6-11. Given Miami’s lack of interior presence, the outside route was its most likely way to a win.
DJ Vasiljevic — who scored 18 points on six 3s in the teams’ last regular-season meeting — opened the game with a triple, after Lykes got into the lane and kicked out. “That was exactly what we were looking for,” Larranaga said.
They didn’t get more of it. Next time down the floor, he missed a good look. Then Lykes missed. Then Lonnie Walker had a driving lane, but pulled up from outside and clanked one. The Canes were forcing it, and it wasn’t effective.
“We needed to be a little calmer,” Larranaga said. “We’re a young team, especially those perimeter players, and anxious to play well.”
Vasiljevic went 2-of-6 from downtown, leading UM in both makes and percentage. Lykes went 2-of-10. Walker was 2-of-7, Newton was 1-of-4 and Anthony Lawrence and Sam Waaardenburg missed a pair each. Most of their tries were well-contested.
Yet they kept trying. At 7:36 of the first half, Walker scored Miami’s first 2-pointer of the game. Miami was down 16-11, shooting 3-for-16 from the floor and 2-for-10 from downtown.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said his team was “letting teams get too comfortable” outside of late. Consider that streak over.
Soft in the middle
Boeheim also thought his team “did a good enough job containing their penetration.” Larranaga felt they were better than that.
UM found little success when it tried to drive. The Canes hard a hard time passing into the middle. Their small guards couldn’t feed the post against much larger players. They scored 10 points off 12 offensive rebounds, but that wasn’t nearly enough.
Jim Larranaga said Syracuse’s size advantage was “like an umbrella … those guys are big” and as a result UM relied too heavily on the 5-7 Lykes, since he was the only player who could effectively penetrate.
The Canes had 20 points in the paint, the loudest of which came on a Walker slam with 4:51 left and Miami down by five. The Hurricanes tried to get the ball into the high post, but too often that’s where it stopped. Center Paschal Chukwu, 7-2 and gangly, swatted a pair of shots. Freshman Bourama Sidibe, 6-10, was credited with three blocks.
Against the Orange in last year’s ACC Tournament, senior forward Kamari Murphy had 16 points and 10 rebounds. This year’s team has inconsistent sophomore Dewan Huell (seven points, 10 rebounds), redshirt freshman Waardenburg and junior Ebuka Izundu (two points each). All are 6-10 or taller. Murphy was smaller (6-8, 220) and less offensively talented but a lot older (23) and a lot meaner.
“He knew exactly how to play against the various teams we were going to face,” Larranaga said. “Davon [Reed] did, too.”
In August, this was considered the most talented roster Miami had ever assembled. Despite that talent — which took a major hit when Brown had surgery on his left foot Jan. 30 — this season has been marred by youthful mistakes and inconsistency.
With four games left — 7 p.m. Monday at Notre Dame, next Saturday against Boston College, Feb. 27 at North Carolina and March 3 against Virginia Tech — the Hurricanes are in danger of falling to the bubble.
Before losing to Virginia, Miami was one of the ACC teams ESPN said “should be in” the NCAA tournament picture. As of Friday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had UM as a No. 6 seed.
The Hurricanes can’t slip up against two teams unlikely to make the dance in Notre Dame (road) and BC (home), since they will be a heavy underdog at UNC and host an ESPN-predicted 10-seed in Virginia Tech. If they close anything worse than 3-1 or 4-0, the Canes could need a win in Brooklyn to solidify their tournament status. Regardless, they’re in a far more uncomfortable position than they expected six months ago.
Still no answer
Boeheim felt injured Miami guard Bruce Brown wouldn’t have made a big difference Saturday because, in his words, “he doesn’t shoot it.” Brown was shooting 26.7 percent from 3-point land when he had surgery Jan. 30.
But the Cuse coach wondered if Miami was missing Brown’s leadership.
The answer doesn’t seem to be no.
“It’s hard to play without Bruce,” Larranaga said, who still expects Brown to return six weeks after surgery, or NCAA Tournament time.
Brown, who shot 4-of-14 for 14 points in two games against the Orange last year, probably would have helped Saturday handling the ball, rebounding and driving to the hole. He is Miami’s most physically stout defender. Lykes admitted the team is “tying to figure out how we can close that gap” without Brown, who last played at Florida State on Jan. 27.
Larranaga thought Miami survived the first three games without Brown, but they’ve sagged since.
Freshmen under pressure
Asked if he was worried about his young team crumbling under the late-season pressure, Larranaga said this:
“Every game is so different,” he said. “When we go to Notre Dame, different personnel, different style, we might play great. But if you get off to a bad start and guys start missing shots, that’s when they start to press.”
Walker, who like Lykes and Waardenburg saw the Orange zone for the first time, didn’t believe they’d get nervous in the next four.
“There’s definitely a sense of urgency,” Walker said, but “we shouldn’t be scared or worried.”
Walker thought UM figured out how to play the zone in the second half, so he was encouraged.
“We’re going to find it. Our team’s going to pick it up,” Walker said. “Despite the loss, I’m very happy with how my team played throughout the second half, based on how hard we played, our energy. Even though this is a loss, it’s definitely a positive loss because we kind of found what we usually do.”
In the second half of the season, Walker said, there are no freshmen. “There’s no such thing as an excuse,” he said, sitting next to Lykes. “As freshmen, we’ve got to lead the team. We’ve got to grow up, get mature, we’re both 19 years old but this is a man’s game. Simple as that. We’ve got to pick it up.”