The third-seeded Miami Hurricanes survived the opening round of the NCAA Tournament; withstanding a spirited effort from the fourteenth-ranked Buffalo Bulls, 79-72 and back in action Saturday for another step towards glory.
Had the Canes put together a regular season performance like the one they did against the Bulls; down 12-4 five minutes in, spotty defense early, missing from beyond-the-arc and turning the ball over 14 times—it’d be easy to dress this team down post-game.
When it comes to March Madness; sometimes just getting is good enough in one-and-done territory. Halfway through day two of The Big Dance, some big dogs are showing more bark than bite.
Second-seeded Michigan State never led in a loss to fifteenth-seeded Middle Tennessee State, while two five-seeds fell to twelve-seeds on day one—Baylor to Yale and Purdue to Little Rock.
Miami’s expected second-round foe also took one on the chin Thursday evening as sixth-ranked Arizona got worked over by a feisty, eleventh-seeded Wichita State—the Shockers more than primed to give the ones a run for their money if the defense doesn’t step up and turnovers slow down.
Angel Rodriguez the the Canes’ comeback and spirited second half with 24 points on 6-of-15 shooting and 3-of-7 from three-point range. Sheldon McClellan followed with a 20-point outing on 5-of-10 shooting, though 0-for-2 from beyond the arc.
Where the duo shone brightest; from the free throw line—a combined 19-of-24 and 7-of-8 in the game’s final minute. Rodriguez and McClellan—one of the best backcourts in this year’s NCAA Tournament—also brought their veteran leadership to the opening round; keeping younger teammates calm, while stepping up when everything was on the line.
“There’s always a point in the game where (Rodriguez) feels like he’s got to score more, and when he does, and he takes advantage of his opportunities, then we have another weapon out there,” Miami head coach Jim Larranaga said.
“I thought Angel and Sheldon were senior leaders today that really dominated the game.”
Ja’Quan Newton again shone in his sixth-man role; logging 26 minutes and 10 points by way of 3-of-8 shooting and 4-of-5 from the free throw line. Kamari Murphy scored 11 in 33 minutes while Davon Reed followed with 10 points over 29 minutes of action.
Despite trailing early, the Canes led by two at intermission—retaking the lead at the 4:13 mark with an alley oop from Newton-to-Reed. Prior to that, Miami had trailed since going down 3-2 early.
The Canes pushed the lead to as many as 12 in the second half, courtesy of some wide open three’s. The Bulls pulled to within four on a jumper by Lamonte Bearden with two minutes remaining, but clutch free throw shooting helped Miami keep Buffalo at bay.
With those opening-game jitters in the rear view, the Canes need to lean on leadership and experience come Saturday when the upset-minded Shockers bring their best.
Wichita State jumped on Arizona early Thursday night and completely demoralized the Wildcats. Should the Canes bring their early Bulls-type effort against the Shockers, there will be no Sweet 16 for Larranaga’s squad.
Miami’s offense will face one of its biggest defensive challenges of the season in Wichita State; who will take away open spaces all afternoon long. The offense can go cold for the Shockers, at times—with defense often carrying this spirited team; proven by holding the Wildcats to a season-low 55 points.
Regarding common opponents, Miami and Wichita State both played Utah. The Canes rolled the then-No. 16 Utes, 90-66 in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, while the Shockers dropped the then-No. 24 squad, 67-50 at home.
Come Saturday, smart, effective basketball is the answer for the Canes—as is another clutch, veteran performance from the Rodriguez/McClellan duo.
Put it all together for two halves this weekend and Miami is Louisville-bound for a Sweet 16 match up against second-seeded Villanova or seventh-seeded Iowa.
Show up limp like they did early against the Bulls and it’ll be a short post-season for the Hurricanes.