CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The letdown Miami fans worried about seemed to be occurring.
Four nights after a stunning 27-point victory against top-ranked Duke, the Hurricanes saw their 9-point lead dissipate to 2 after a 3-point jumper by Florida State’s Terry Whisnant with 3:17 left in the first half.
That’s when Miami’s Jim Larranaga called a 30-second timeout.
What was the coach’s message?
“Keep playing hard, keep doing what we were doing,” guard Trey McKinney Jones said. “Keep playing hard on defense, locking down and playing together.”
What resulted was a 9-0 Hurricanes’ run that grabbed control of the game en route to a 71-47 victory on Sunday night before a second-consecutive sellout crowd at the BankUnited Center.
Larranaga said the run right before halftime was “a good sign” for his team, and not just for the obvious score change.
“We had a couple of guys in foul trouble, and you don’t want to go into the half with guys tentative to play defense in the second half because they’re worried if they foul, they’ll be sitting on the bench,” Larranaga said. “Guys do worry about their playing time.
“So what happens is, I have to rely on guys who don’t play significant numbers of minutes.”
Ahead 30-26 with 2:29 remaining in the half, Larranaga inserted reserve guard Erik Swoope for center Reggie Johnson.
“(Swoope) only played 8 minutes, but those two minutes that he played in the first half were huge,” Larranaga said. “(FSU) had had cut it to 2, we had a couple of guys with two fouls and we wanted to protect them because the officials were calling some quick fouls.”
Swoope’s presence enabled Miami to trap and help force a couple of turnovers that sparked what proved to be a decisive run.
Potential letdown avoided. Second-straight lopsided home victory secured. A large jump in the rankings expected for the No. 25 Hurricanes.
Miami (15-3, 6-0) maintained a two-game lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference race. It now faces road games at Virginia Tech on Wednesday and North Carolina State on Saturday.
“I know in the beginning of the year, when we wrote our goals, we never had beating No. 1 Duke in there. We want to win the ACC,” said forward Kenny Kadji, who scored 11 points.
Barring unforeseen negative events, there’s no reason the Canes shouldn’t contend for both the regular-season and tournament league titles. They’re experienced, they have an inside-outside attack, and they have, according to FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, the ACC’s best point guard in sophomore Shane Larkin.
“They have benefitted and they’ve gained wisdom from the challenges they’ve had to go through the last couple of years — they’ve been coming close,” Hamilton said. “If they stay focused and can avoid injuries, this team can do great things this year.”
Don’t tell that to Larranaga, a master of addressing one game at a time.
“The expression is, ‘The past is history, the future is a mystery, but they call it the present because it’s a gift,'” Larranaga said. “We want to stay in the present and focus on this gift we’ve been given.”
Hamilton had an experienced team last year, when the Seminoles won their first ACC Tournament crown. This season, a younger Florida State (11-8, 3-3) team has been inconsistent. It also lost redshirt junior and leading rebounder Terrance Shannon (8.5 ppg., 6.3 rpg.) to a neck injury suffered in a Jan. 19 loss at Virginia.
“I’ll be surprised if he comes back,” Hamilton said. “It’s the second time he’s had that type of injury and we’re going to be extremely cautious.”
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are as healthy as they’ve been all season. The team’s chemistry and execution clearly have benefited from the veteran players working together during the summer.
“Most importantly, we’re having fun,” said McKinney Jones, who scored a game-high 15 points. “If we come out, play together and have fun, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
Others agree. TV analyst and former Duke star Jason Williams called Miami a potential Final Four team during the game.
“If we’re still playing in April, ” Larranaga said, “then he’s right.”