Miami Weathers Illinois’ Storm, 63-59

miami hurricanes illinois fightin illini ncaa tourney march madness austin texas round three rion brown shane larkinPerennial powerhouses might be used to games like this, but for a non-NCAA Tournament program, Sunday night night was heart-attack-city for the Miami Hurricanes.

In the end, it’s not the path it took to get there. It’s not the shots that didn’t fall. The turnovers. The perennial prime-time players who didn’t shine in the program’s biggest moment.

No, it’s all about the result when that clock hits zero. It’s about those season-defining moments down the stretch. It’s finding a way late when the first thirty-nine minutes failed to produce a desired result.

It’s also the stones on a leader like Shane Larkin, deciding it was time for someone to do something, down one with a minute to play, stepping back and draining a three-pointer to give Miami a game-defining two-point lead.

2-of-6 from beyond-the-arc all night. Stifled by a suffocating Illinois defense – one not as blue collar and gritty as the commentators led viewers to believe, but one that certainly came to play and went blow-for-blow with the Hurricanes every possession.

With a minute remaining in a 55-54 game, Larkin sensed that something had to give. Neither team had taken over, both squad simple trading barbs and playing with a ‘hang tough’, survivalist mentality.

With over a minute left, Larkin looked for the shot, but it wasn’t there. He wisely kicked it out to Durand Scott for a quick reset and some breathing room. Scott juked, had nothing, sent it back to Larkin, who made a move towards the lane, pulled back and let one go from twenty feet out.

Right arm extended while he took a few steps back, Larkin looked in his shot and Miami took a two-point lead, as well as the momentum that came from someone stepping up giving this game it’s signature moment.

Anything that happened earlier could still be overcome in such a back and forth content, but with fifty-four seconds remaining and a two-point deficit, Larkin delivered a blow that staggered the strong-willed, seven-seed Illini.

The initial AP article pissed and moaned about a questionable call when a rebound rattled of the hands of Kenny Kadji and either Nnanna Egwu or Brandon Paul, but the ill-fated three-point attempt of D.J. Richardson that fell feet short of the rim showed that Illinois’ nerves were shot, unable to match the magic Miami brought on the previous possession.

Those two attempts were the difference between a contender and pretender; what do you in the moment. Not just ‘the’ moment, but THE moment. The Canes buried theirs, while the Illini’s attempt fell short, barely grazing the net.

The Illini had an open look and opportunity to match Larkin’s three, taking the lead, or could’ve driven the lane like they had all night, in an attempt to tie.

Discrediting Miami’s final minute dagger, after enduring thirty-nine minute of blow-for blow basketball? It’s bogus and low-brow.

Did the rebound go off Kadji’s hand? Sure looked like it, but in a bang-bang, un-reviewable moment it can be chalked up to the nature of the game and imperfect art of officiating.

The game had its share of missed calls that didn’t go Miami’s way, lay ups that didn’t fall for the Canes and both forgiving or unforgiving rims, depending on the moment.

Scott dropped two free throws, fouled after Richardson’s miss. From there, Paul missed a lay up opp, but Egwu dropped in two from the line.

Richardson then fouled Larkin after the Illini missed a golden opportunity to foul Reggie Johnson, who played an erratic eighteen minutes, scoring two points and instead sending the clutch Larkin to the line, where the sophomore drilled both attempts.

61-59 after an Egwu tip, Illinois again fouled Miami and this time hero-of-the-night Rion Brown stepped to the line, dropped his two and pushed the lead to four with seven seconds remaining.

Seems when perennial powers have nights like this, it’s chalked up to great play, the basketball gods or grit and determination, yet with when an unheralded Miami program prevails, it’s luck, a bogus call or some other injustice needing defining.

Great teams find a way, as do teams with incredible stories. Miami is a perfect storm this season and while that in itself doesn’t guarantee the ultimate success, games like this are typical footnotes in the journey.

Nights where a sharpshooter and ACC Defensive Player Of The Year like Scott is held to six points, or Larkin is stymied with twelve points entering the final minute, a role player like Brown has a magical night where’s he’s “the guy”.

The kid who missed a game-tying three-point attempt at Duke, clamoring for a moment like this, elevates his game when his squad needs him most.

Backs to the wall, do-or-die situation, offense suffocating as role players have been neutralized, Brown goes for twenty-nine minutes, leads the team with twenty-one points and hits five of Miami’s nine three-pointers, all seeming to come when the game was on the verge of getting out of control, or a momentum shift was needed.

Sweet Sixteen-bound and four wins from a national championship. There’s many a horse in the race, but the fact Miami is still standing when other greats have fallen – that in itself deserves recognition.

Gonzaga? Georgetown? New Mexico? Kansas State? Wisconsin? UNLV? Oklahoma State? All legit contenders and all sent packing after one or two attempts at advancing.

Games like this are part of March Madness.

This wasn’t Miami’s night. Shots weren’t falling and the mojo that carried this team many an evening, home or on the road, was non-existent.

Yet in that final moment, when the game was all but even and everything was on the line, it happened. That moment where control was seized and momentum snatched.

Cliche to imply that one side wants it more than another, but it takes a prime-time player to pull the trigger in a game-defining moment and Larkin showed why he’s one of the best in the game.

Hit the shot and you save the season. Come up short and the bubble burst.

Miami got it done and as a result will live to see another day. That’s the takeaway after game two in Austin.

Three days to soak it up; the Hurricanes are headed to the Sweet Sixteen and the dream of a national championship is alive as ever.

Let that sink in for a moment before turing the focus to Marquette. History is being made game-by-game.

Embrace it before moving on to the next challenge.

Christian Bello has been covering Miami Hurricanes athletics since the mid-1990s. After spending almost a decade as a columnist for CanesTime, he launched – the official blog for : The #1 Canes Shop Since 1959. Bello has joined up with and will be a guest columnist at this fall. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianRBello.