“Once you get that first hit – once you get hit – that’s when you can just take a deep breath and relax,” said McKinney-Jones in the locker room, post-game.
Down 4-2 three-and-a-half minutes in, the initial pace of the showdown with fifteen-seed Pacific definitely showed the nerves McKinney spoke of.
The senior guard also made it clear that once the jitters were shaken off, it was just another game and from that point, the Hurricanes shredded the Tigers, winners of the Big West, 78-49, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin only put up ten points, but with nine assists he was Miami’s floor general and head coach Jim Larranaga made it clear that was by design.
“Since the very first day I saw Shane Larkin play, I thought he was great. And he’s only gotten better at making decisions, at developing his skills and developing his role as a leader,” said Larranaga.
“Today, I may have called one or two offensive plays. I said to him, ‘Run your team.'”
And run it Larkin did. Miami led 8-7 four minutes in and from there, nerves be gone, the Canes tore off a 14-0 run.
Up 22-7 with 7:27 remaining, the Canes played confident down the stretch, first round nerves calmed and able to focus on playing, opposed to winning and moving on.
Miami led 40-19 at the half, after Pacific’s Markus Duran drained a long three at the buzzer, but the Canes answered in the second half as Durand Scott opened the scoring with a three-pointer, putting UM up by twenty-four.
Scott led the Canes with twenty-one on the day, going 6-of-10 from the field, hitting five three-pointers and 4-of-4 from the line.
Reggie Johnson, who’s had his struggles and seemed lethargic early, finished with seven points and ten rebounds on the day, while Julian Gamble racked up five points and three rebounds, only playing fifteen minutes to Johnson’s twenty-four, which hasn’t been the norm as Johnson has struggled as of late, with Gamble filling in effectively.
Where stats don’t tell the story; the fact that Miami simply got this game behind them and advanced to the second round.
A team full of top-notch seniors, not one Hurricane has any NCAA Tournament experience as Miami’s last trip to the Big Dance came in 2008, where a Frank Haith-led squad was ousted in the second round, a seven-seed that fell to two-seed Texas, after knocking off tenth-seeded St. Mary’s in the opening round.
Come Sunday, Miami is the two-seed, taking on seven-seed Illinois, who knocked off tenth-ranked Colorado, 57-49 soon after the Canes disposed of the Tigers.
One down, five to go. Many roadblocks remain in Miami’s quest to get to Atlanta, but the anxiousness that comes with round one and shaking off the cobwebs – it’s been done. A quality Big Ten program is up next and the Canes have under forty-eight hours to figure out the Fighting Illini and take another step towards greatness.