CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Three blocked shots. Less than four seconds.
The highlight moment of Julian Gamble’s career at Miami had nothing to do with offense, which seems fitting for him. After all, the sixth-year senior has scored four points or less in 75 of his 118 career appearances with the Hurricanes.
Instead, it came in the form of one brilliant defensive sequence on Tuesday, where he simply victimized Virginia’s Akil Mitchell on a play that has been replayed countless times in the last few days. Mitchell shot, Gamble blocked. Mitchell rebounded and shot again, Gamble blocked. One more time, Mitchell rebounded, head-faked and then shot — and, yep, Gamble swatted that one away as well.
Gamble hardly, if ever, has a play called for him on the offensive end of the floor. Still, he’s become invaluable to the second-ranked Hurricanes, a key part of a team that many believe is good enough to win a national championship.
“You can see the impact he’s had, the difference between our team last season and this season,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said.
And to think he should have been gone long ago.
Gamble came to the Hurricanes in 2007, redshirting his true freshman season. He played 93 games over the next three years, almost all as a reserve, and none in the NCAA tournament.
Before what would have been his senior season and fifth year at the school, Gamble tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left leg. Months later, the NCAA said he qualified for a sixth year — and he’s taken full advantage of the chance, working his way into the starting lineup and helping the Hurricanes work their way up the national polls.
“This is what we love doing and we have a story to tell,” Gamble said. “We have an opportunity to inspire people and let people know, especially from my point of view, that perseverance definitely pays off over adversity.”
Gamble returns to his home state of North Carolina on Saturday, when the Hurricanes put their 14-game winning streak and perfect Atlantic Coast Conference record on the line against Wake Forest.
“Having an opportunity to go back to North Carolina and play in front of our families — we’ve got a lot of guys from North Carolina — it’s a big game,” Gamble said.
Gamble is averaging 6.8 points on 56 percent shooting for the Hurricanes (22-3, 13-0), who struggled a bit in the early going before simply catching fire once the calendar flipped to January.
His numbers are perfectly fine, in terms of what Miami wants to see from him on the offensive end of the floor. Ask the Hurricanes where he’s most valuable, and they’ll either say on the defensive end or off the court.
“Julian’s an emotional leader out there,” said Miami center Reggie Johnson, a longtime starter who now comes off the bench, primarily behind Gamble. “Julian just plays hard, blocks shots, runs the floor. To have Julian here, man, it’s really special.”
Gamble has one degree and will soon have his master’s as well. He takes two classes now, both at night, and an independent-study course. That means his days are free to largely focus on basketball — and he’s taking advantage.
His footwork is better. His finishing skills are better. He’s slimmer and quicker, and is simply a wall at times around the rim for the Hurricanes. He got the word about the sixth year toward the end of last season, when his trainer told him that he had “good news and bad news — the bad news is, you’ve still got rehab, and the good news is, they granted you a sixth year.”
Without that, he’d be elsewhere.
Without him, Miami probably wouldn’t be No. 2 in the nation, either.
“He worked so hard last summer,” Larranaga said. “He lost 20 to 25 pounds. He got much stronger. By September he was running and jumping, and I just knew he was going to be a major factor.”