Friedlander: Greatest 10 minutes in Miami history puts the 'U' in unbelievable run to Final Four
The Miami Hurricanes had been here before.
Just 1 year ago, they held a 6-point halftime lead on top-seeded Kansas and stood just 20 minutes from going to their first Final Four.
Then … they got blitzed in the 2nd half by the eventual national champions.
Close, but no cigar.
Given a second chance Sunday against Texas, the highest remaining seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Jordan Miller, Isaiah Wong and their teammates weren’t about to get sent home empty handed again.
Even though they trailed by double digits midway through the 2nd half. With arguably their most important player, big man Norchad Omier, relegated to the bench with 4 fouls.
It was at that point Miami turned up its defensive intensity, Miller turned into the second coming of Christian Laettner and the 5th-seeded Hurricanes roared from behind by playing the greatest 10 minutes in program history.
They put the U in unbelievable by outscoring the Longhorns by 10 the rest of the way to stun Texas 88-80, win the Midwest Region championship and join UConn, San Diego State and Sunshine State neighbor Florida Atlantic as part of the most improbable Final 4 to date.
Go ahead and light up those victory cigars, guys.
“No one wanted to go home,” said Miller, who did his part by making all 7 of his field-goal attempts and all 13 of his free throws on the way to a game-high 27 points. “We came together, we stuck together. We showed good perseverance and the will to just get there.”
The Hurricanes shouldn’t expect too warm a welcome once they get to NRG Stadium in Houston.
In order to earn their trip “there,” they had to systematically crush the Final Four dreams of 2 Lone Star favorites. They ran top-seeded Houston off the floor with an emphatic Sweet 16 victory on Friday before reaching deep into the heart of Texas and ripping it out in the Elite 8.
The 2nd-seeded Longhorns looked to be halfway to Houston after an impressive performance that saw them build a 45-37 advantage after 20 minutes, despite Miami shooting 64% from the floor.
The lead grew to as many as 13 and appeared to get even more commanding when the Hurricanes’ leading rebounder and most effective low-post defender Omier picked up his 4th foul chasing a loose ball near midcourt.
Texas’ Timmy Allen made 1 of 2 free throws about a minute later to put Miami in a 67-55 hole with 10:14 remaining.
Game. Set. Match.
Actually, yes. Only not the way it seemed at the time.
“We called a timeout and I said to them, ‘We just need to calm down and play better,’” coach Jim Larrañaga said. “There’s no big secret in this. We’re very good, but we’ve got to play very well.
“Our defense dramatically improved. Our rebounding improved. Once we get stops, we really can score the ball. So we went on a run offensively, defensively and that completely turned the game around.”
"All the guys just kept talking 'We've got to go past the Elite 8 and get to the Final Four'" 🙌
Jim Larrañaga celebrates with his team as the Canes are set to make their first Final Four appearance ever! 👏#MarchMadness @CanesHoops pic.twitter.com/BEzGSRRPJz
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 26, 2023
Instead of chipping away at the Texas lead, the Hurricanes blew past the Longhorns with Category 5 force.
Miller started the rally by attacking the rim and getting to the line twice. Reserve guard Bensley Joseph followed with a basket in transition and Wong hit a step-back jumper. Wooga Poplar then hit a pair of free throws after grabbing an offensive rebound before making a jumper of his own.
While the Hurricanes were scoring on 7 straight possessions, their defense, rejuvenated by Omier’s return, started to get stops. It’s a combination that produced an 18-5 run that put Miami ahead 73-72 on a pair of Omier free throws with 5:26 left.
“We’ve been in so many close games this year,” Larrañaga said. “I felt very comfortable and confident these guys (would) pull us through.”
Among Miami’s school record-tying 29 victories this season are 7 decided by 4 points or less. It’s not a coincidence that a majority of them came against conference opponents – Virginia, Pittsburgh, Clemson and Wake Forest.
Say what you want about the quality of the ACC this season. And a lot of people outside the league have a lot of things to say about it.
But the degree of difficulty the Hurricanes faced in earning a share of the regular season league co-championship played a major role in preparing them for their Final Four run and handling the adversity they had to overcome to get there.
“I would just say I thank the ACC for preparing us for these types of games coming in,” said Wong, the league’s Player of the Year and 1 of 5 Hurricanes to score in double figures Sunday. “Every game we played in the ACC is a close game. It’s always a shot to win.
“ I feel like coming into March we’d been in those types of situations. We weren’t afraid or scared of any situation. We just stuck together and played together throughout the game.”
“Shoutout to the ACC for the competition.”
Isaiah Wong credits ACC-play for Miami’s preparation in its NCAA Tournament run.https://t.co/zCH8aRzDxm pic.twitter.com/0024F292a8
— Michael Yero (@MichaelYero) March 27, 2023
In doing so, they helped their conference save some face after a difficult season by doing something the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC couldn’t do.
Put a team in the Final Four.
But that was only a collateral benefit in the eyes of Miller and the other Hurricanes who were around to remember the hurt and disappointment they felt 12 months ago against Kansas.
“That loss sat with me for a really, really long time,” the 6-7 graduate wing said. “I had to put it in the past because it was a new season. But having the opportunity to kind of right your wrongs and get past something that stumped you previously is a great feeling. …
“After the buzzer sounded, it felt surreal. Being able to go on stage, hold up the trophy, cut down nets again. Truly blessed.”