GREENSBORO, NC — A new season began for Miami on Friday afternoon.
The Hurricanes won the ACC regular-season title, but closed out by losing three of four games and falling out of favor with many national pundits. Once widely embraced, the ‘Canes were being shunned as contenders, as the teeth of March neared.
This hasn’t exactly been lost on the players, either. But they weren’t too affected by the doubters before the conference season began, and they aren’t falling victim to the naysayers now. And that, senior guard Trey McKinney-Jones said, was why pulling away from Boston College in the quarterfinals of the 60th ACC tournament is so important to the team’s psyche.
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It wasn’t that top-seeded Miami beat No. 8 seed BC 69-58 — but how it won. Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin scored 12 of his 20 points in the final 12 minutes, as Miami turned a 42-37 deficit into the 11-point victory.
The ‘Canes hold to build off of this.
“That’s our point guard, that’s our team leader,” McKinney-Jones said. “We follow him a lot, and when he steps it up in big games we follow him.”
Larkin was a first-team All-ACC selection and garnered quite a few Player of the Year votes. Even though he’s a few years younger than most of the other players in Miami’s rotation, he has become the leader. But in truth, the ‘Canes are experienced and mature enough to understand what must be done to regenerate the steam they had a few weeks ago, after opening ACC play with a 13-0 mark.
But suddenly, Miami (25-6) went into a funk that has fueled so much pessimism regarding its ACC and NCAA tournament chances. An ugly loss at Wake Forest and a close home loss to Georgia Tech were especially puzzling.
“We were picked fourth in the league, people really didn’t think we’d be that good and we have an underdog mentality,” senior forward Kenny Kadji said. “But now people play differently against us, they prepare differently … It’s just different how teams approach us.”
The chip on Miami’s shoulder that helped stimulate nearly two months of excellent basketball no longer worked. The Hurricanes exhaled some, realized what was before them and maybe a little satisfaction settled in.
But that’s the beautiful thing about tournament basketball: Everyone starts out 0-0, meaning the Hurricanes’ tepid finish to the regular season is just a memory. Miami lived a little of that Friday.
Miami opened with a 15-4 lead before Boston College made its move. Aided by a zone that slowed and flustered the Hurricanes, the Eagles eventually built a two-point halftime lead.
BC’s largest lead was at five points in the second half, and that’s when Larkin went to work. Showing no passivity, he began to attack; so his teammates attacked, as well. Earning a hard-fought, comeback win was probably more beneficial than a blowout victory, senior center Julian Gamble says.
“We were playing fantastic basketball and got out of that, but right now we’re trying to get that back, and a game like today can help us,” Gamble added. “Being pushed isn’t a bad thing, and coming out of it like we did is a better thing.”
And that should help the Hurricanes ease into its Saturday semifinal against North Carolina State (which thumped Virginia on Friday). Gamble is the only player on the team to experience the NCAA tournament — the sixth-year senior did that as a freshman in 2008.
Developing tournament toughness is crucial for this group.
So is getting that old feeling back.
“I think we were putting a little too much pressure on ourselves,” McKinney-Jones said. “The pressure to win the conference outright, the last few games we knew we had to win one. We were pretty confident coming into this tournament because we really have no pressure on ourselves anymore. … With a win, we feel even better.”