CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) – The Miami Hurricanes’ finale in the Atlantic Coast Conference race will determine whether their late-season losses are remembered as a mere stumble or an epic collapse.
That sounds like a lot of pressure.
“We just want to try to keep it as another game,” senior Kenny Kadji said Thursday.
“It’s going to be an emotionally tense moment,” senior Julian Gamble conceded.
“Wait a minute,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “I just think it’s college basketball.”
Larranaga wants to avoid making too much of the sixth-ranked Hurricanes’ recent slump. After winning their first 13 league games, they’ve lost three of the past four, including consecutive defeats when they had a chance to clinch the ACC title outright.
They still have one more shot when they play host to Clemson on Saturday. And they could back into the outright title if second-place Duke loses Saturday night at North Carolina.
Larranaga said the Hurricanes should be thrilled with their situation. After all, he said, they’re already assured of at least a title share, and they’ve clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.
“We have one game remaining,” he said. “If someone asked you before the conference race began, would you like to be a game up on Duke and two games up on North Carolina and sitting in first place with a home game to close out the regular season, I think everybody would say yes, that would be a fantastic year.”
But the year’s not quite as fantastic lately. For two games in a row, ACC champion T-shirts for the players have remained boxed.
On Wednesday, Miami (23-6, 14-3) squandered a 13-point lead in the second half and lost to Georgia Tech 71-69 on a tip-in at the buzzer.
“It’s bitter,” senior Trey McKinney Jones said, “but we have to have a short memory.”
Clemson (13-16, 5-12) gave Miami a scare but lost 45-43 on Feb. 17. The Hurricanes won with defense that night, and a lot of other nights. But in their recent losses they’ve allowed 80, 79 and 71 points, with all three opponents shooting at least 51.7 percent.
“Definitely it’s about our defense,” McKinney Jones said. “Early in the ACC, we locked down defensively. That was our forte. We have to get back to doing that.
“Maybe we relaxed a little bit, which is not a good thing. These last few games have been eye-openers. We’re going to definitely take care of business the rest of the season.”
Larranaga said opponents are wearing down the Hurricanes’ biggest players – 6-foot-11 Kadji, 6-10 Gamble and 6-10 Reggie Johnson – by forcing them to cover ball screens on the perimeter.
“They’re making our big guys come away from the basket and play ball screens multiple times in a single possession,” Larranaga said. “You’re like an accordion – you’re out and in and out and in. It’s very challenging.”
Johnson’s play has declined during the slump. He has shot 4 for 19 over the past four games and committed three turnovers in 15 minutes against Tech.
“He knows he’s capable of playing better than he has in recent games,” Larranaga said.
Johnson’s one of six seniors who will play their final home game Saturday, and five will start – Johnson, Gamble, Kadji, McKinney Jones and Durand Scott. Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin will come off the bench for the first time this season.
“The seniors are basically the foundation of the program,” Larranaga said. “They’ll go down as the winningest team in Miami history in terms of accomplishing things that have never been done before.”
With another victory, the Hurricanes would tie the school record set by the 2001-02 team, which went 24-8. An outright league title would be a first for Miami.
“What better storybook ending would you want,” Gamble said, “than closing out the ACC championship on your home court on senior day?”
The Tigers stand in Miami’s way, but they’ve lost five in a row and eight of nine. Clemson fell 68-61 to Boston College on Tuesday night, as Devin Booker had 19 points and eight rebounds and fellow senior Milton Jennings added 18 and seven in their final home game.
“I’m obviously disappointed that we didn’t send our seniors out in a better way,” coach Brad Brownell said. “I thought both those guys competed hard tonight and certainly were very productive. … They’ve played pretty well most of the year, they really have.”
Booker and Jennings combined to shoot 6 for 25 last month against Miami.
Clemson has not lost six straight since an eight-game slide Jan. 12-Feb. 10, 2002.