CORAL GABLES — Miami likes these tight games, it seems.
“We joke around in the locker room,” guard DJ Vasiljevic said. “We keep it interesting for the fans, just to keep them anxious and nervous.”
Saturday was, as usual, interesting.
Against Virginia Tech, the Hurricanes overcame a halftime deficit and a late surge. The result: a 69-68 victory in their final home game of the season. It was Miami’s fourth win in a row, each one in the final seconds.
“I’ve coached for 46 years and I can never remember four games in a row ending on the final possession — and winning all four,” coach Jim Larranaga said.
If playing in tight games helps a team come NCAA Tournament time, the Hurricanes (22-8, 11-7 ACC) will be in good shape.
This four-game winning streak has come by a total of eight points. The ACC standings are so tight that with a few bounces or calls the other way, Miami could be looking at a No. 12 seed. On Saturday, Virginia Tech was sloppy down the stretch, but credit the Canes for making the plays.
The closing sequence:
With the game tied at 66, Dewan Huell drew a charge, but Chris Lykes turned it over on a travel. Sam Waardenburg was called for a foul while defending Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke, who made two at the line with 1:13 left.
Miami’s top shot-maker, Lonnie Walker, dribbled left, cut back right, and sank a baseline fadeaway over Justin Bibbs to make it 68-all.
The Hokies had a glittering chance when Ahmed Hill grabbed an offensive rebound, following Kerry Blackshear’s ill-advised 3 attempt, but Bibbs missed and lost the ball out of bounds with 12.6 seconds remaining.
With a packed house standing, Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson pushed Lykes on a drive to the hole, earning the 5-7 freshman a 1-and-1 at the line. With three seconds on the clock, Lykes swished one of two.
“Just trying to make one,” said Lykes, who had 15 points and seven assists and a contender for ACC sixth man of the year. “Really wasn’t trying to think about anything. That’s how you miss.”
The Hokies’ Clarke grabbed the miss and let a halfcourt shot go, possibly one or two steps too early.
It caromed off the backboard, and Miami, which trailed by as many as 12 late in the first half, had a win.
Miami’s next game will be Thursday.
(updated 10:20 p.m. Saturday, after completion of Saturday’s games)
After closing the season with a four-game winning streak — including one of the more impressive wins of the ACC season, a road upset at No. 9 North Carolina — the Hurricanes are set up well for Brooklyn.
Because of the ACC’s tiebreaker rules, the Hurricanes (11-7 in league play) will be the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament, which begins Tuesday at the Barclays Center. That’s because North Carolina lost at Duke, North Carolina State beat Louisville and Clemson lost at Syracuse.
With Saturday’s win, Miami was assured either the No. 3, 4 or 5 seed.
UM opens the tournament at 9 p.m. Thursday, against either No. 6 UNC, No. 11 Syracuse or No. 14 Wake Forest.
A top-four seed means two extra days of rest while Nos. 5 through 15 slug it out.
“The season has given us little opportunity to rest,” said Vasiljevic (16 points, 4-of-6 from 3). “When we play on a Saturday, we have to travel somewhere on a Monday. … A double bye will be good for us. We can rest our bodies. We’ll have tomorrow off completely.”
A refreshing finish.
The Hurricanes spent four weeks away from home between November and December, and Larranaga said his young team hit a wall in February. Bruce Brown’s foot injury (out since Jan. 30; will be reevaluated March 12) left UM without its best all-around player, and cast doubt on Miami’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
But the Canes have won seven of 10 games without Brown, including an upset win at No. 9 North Carolina last Tuesday. They’re entering the ACC Tournament feeling good about their game, and all but assured of an NCAA bid.
“It’s a new team, new faces. The beginning of the season it was kind of hard. We didn’t know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” said Walker, one of three freshmen who play big minutes. “DJ likes to shoot. We know Chris is a great facilitator when he drives. … It’s finally starting to click. That’s what matters. We click at the right time. That’s going into the tournament. We’ve got confidence.”
Miami shot a respectable 48 percent from the field Saturday, and 42.3 from 3-point land. UM struggled at the free-throw line (10-of-18, 55.6 percent) but Lykes hit a big one late. The Hokies outrebounded Miami 33-26, but didn’t light up the Watsco Center (46.9 percent shooting, 45 percent from 3, 68.4 from the line)
Miami went from 12 down to nine ahead with 8:24 left on Saturday. Larranaga credited a lineup that shared the ball and hit shots. A well-rested Huell (nine points, four rebounds in 19 minutes), after first-half foul trouble, was critical in that stretch. “He came out really determined,” Larranaga said, “and the other guys found him.”
It was Miami’s senior day, where walk-ons Mike Robinson and Chris Stowell started along with Ja’Quan Newton. Stowell scored his first career point on a free-throw in the opening minutes.
“Considering we won the game by one point,” Larranaga said, beaming, “you’d have to say he won the game. He misses both free throws, who knows what happens.”
Newton, who had a poor day shooting (1-of-5, two points), earned praise from his coach for his leadership late in the season.
“When you’re the only scholarship senior, and there’s a lot of pressure on you to lead the team, and then team goes through a three-game losing streak, it’s very easy for others to doubt you.” Larranaga said of Newton, who was suspended to end each of the last two seasons because he broke team rules. Larranaga said Newton’s enthusiastic attitude at Notre Dame, where Miami started this win streak Feb. 19, was big for team morale. “Our guys followed the example,” Larranaga said. “We played very spirited.” Then came a win at Boston College, and a win at UNC, and now today.
“It’s really fun for a coach to watch your team lift its spirits at a crucial time in the year,” he said.
Was this Walker’s last game in Coral Gables?
He started slow coming off July knee surgery, but the freshman is coming on strong of late. His potential could get him drafted — if he chooses to come out.
Sources close to Walker say he hasn’t made a decision, but no one at UM would be surprised if he left early. Walker has a chance to be the highest-drafted Hurricane since Hall of Famer Rick Barry (second overall in 1966). UM’s most recent first-rounder, Shane Larkin, went 18th in 2014. Brown could be a first-rounder, too, should he declare early. UM has never had two first-rounders in the same draft year.
According to various mock drafts, Walker’s draft stock is back to where it was before the season: lottery level. Sports Illustrated has him as high as 11. ESPN has him at 14. NBADraft.net has him at 16.
He put up 12 points Saturday, his sixth game in a row in double figures, and has hit 10-plus in 13 of his last 15 games.
Walker tries to do too much sometimes. One example: midway through the second half, he slapped the ball from Hokies guard Nickiel Alexander-Walker beyond the arc, then zipped the other way. Instead of taking it in for an easy slam, he hooked a pass to Chris Lykes, who missed a 3. But he’s the quickest player on the floor most nights, is an improving defender at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds and has elite skill.
One lasting memory from Saturday: Walker ripped though a perimeter double-team with a crossover and threw down a two-handed tomahawk. If he’s doing that in a Miami uniform next year, the ceiling for UM will be high.