ATLANTA -- Rion Brown figured to be the last guy to torment Georgia Tech here Saturday. Or maybe this was the way it was supposed to work out for the Miami guard all along — the shooter in a slump, the shooter who figured to come out of it one of these days, perhaps in the biggest game of the season, and give UM a big bump.
And there it was, lost and discovered amid the mental clutter in his mind. His stroke. In the Hurricanes’ Atlantic Coast Conference opener, against a team that clogs the middle and forces opponents to make some three-pointers, “Downtown” Rion Brown appeared. He made 9 of 11 shots, including 4 of 6 threes, and his career-high 22 points led Miami (10-3, 1-0) to a 62-49 victory that was not as close as the final margin. UM led by 23 with 8:07 left.
“Finally, I got my first one to go down,” said Brown, who was 5 for 38 from three going in. “I had really been struggling. My teammates, they kept finding me and told me to keep shooting and finally today the first one dropped. You got to hit that first one; it gives you all the confidence in the world.”
Brown’s shot reappeared to help coach Jim Larranaga win his 500th career game. In a benchmark win, the coach had a few things to do with the victory, most importantly changing up Miami’s offense late in the first half so the floor opened up for guard Shane Larkin. Larranaga also stressed inside defense to forwards Kenny Kadji, Julian Gamble, and reserve Raphael Akpejion and the Hurricanes clobbered Tech on the boards, 40-29, frequently holding Tech to one shot.
The Yellow Jackets (10-3, 0-1) made just 32. 7 percent of their shots (17 of 52).
The 6-11 Kadji was 3 of 9 from the field, but he had 14 rebounds. The 6-10 Gamble was 2 of 6 from the field, but he helped flummox Tech center Daniel Miller into 2-of-7 shooting. Georgia Tech scored one basket inside the lane in the first half when the game was being decided. Miami played its fifth game without 6-10 starting center Reggie Johnson, who is out six weeks with a broken left thumb, but they did just fine without him.
“Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble are veteran guys who have played against big fellows their whole life — it’s kind of the right matchup for us in terms of big guys,” Larranaga said. “We’re better defending big guys than we are smaller, quicker players.”
Larkin had just one turnover in 36 minutes and had six assists. He had five points — he had been averaging 13.5 per game — but Brown picked up the slack, coming off the bench to hit his first shot, a three-pointer, with 15:54 left in the first half.
The game turned decidedly toward Miami in the last five minutes of the first half. Larranaga said he went to a “different package” on offense, one that helped spread the floor for Larkin to charge down the lane.
In other words, the Miami big men set a screen for Larkin near the top of the key and then immediately slipped away from the ball. That took a big man out of the picture and Larkin was able to use his quickness against a defender one-on-one and down the lane he went. Larranaga spread his shooters to the corners and Larkin had a pair of assists on back-to-back possessions to guard Trey McKinney-Jones, who hit a three and scored on a layup.
Georgia Tech, which had been clogging the middle of the floor, was suddenly vulnerable. UM made 5 of 7 shots to close the first half, and its 19-18 lead with 4:58 left in the first half swelled to 33-23 by intermission.
“I thought the last five minutes in that first half was a big part of that game,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said.