RALEIGH, N.C. -- A left-handed tip in for the game-winner to keep No. 14 Miami undefeated in Atlantic Coast Conference play was somehow poetic justice for Reggie Johnson.
Johnson, the team’s 300-pound senior center and arguably the club’s heart and soul the past few seasons, was averaging a double-double when he was sidelined in December with a fractured left thumb. He had to sit around and watch the Hurricanes (17-3, 8-0) begin to reel off win after win without his familiar frame backing his way down in the paint.
Upon his return, Johnson was relegated to bench duty and the senior had been rusty, going a combined 2 for 14 from the field in wins over Duke, Florida State and Virginia Tech.
It was more of the same in the first half of a 79-78 victory Saturday over No. 19 N.C. State, with Johnson 1 for 3 with two personal fouls in eight minutes of play. One of his misses drew nothing but air from three-point range.
Coach Jim Larranaga spoke tongue-in-cheek about Johnson’s air ball from beyond the arc.
“Reggie knows he has my permission to shoot one of those, and he doesn’t normally air ball it, he normally has a pretty good stroke from there,” Larranaga said. “He knows if he misses it that’s it for the night and if makes it take another, maybe it’s your night.”
He didn’t take any three-pointers in the final 30 minutes of what had to be the ACC game of the year, and it turned out to be Johnson’s night.
His fortunes changed drastically in the second half as his teammates began feeding him the ball down low. Once again, Johnson began dominating, and the Hurricanes pulled out another win once in this improbable march to the ACC regular-season’s top seed. A veteran Miami team now holds a two-game lead over Duke halfway through the schedule.
Johnson was 5 for 7 in the final 20 minutes and grabbed five rebounds as he helped will the Canes from 10 points down with 13:55 left to its fifth conference road win. Johnson scored six points in a 16-2 run halfway through the second half as the Hurricanes clawed their way back into the game.
“Reggie’s night was huge,” said Julian Gamble, who picked his game up in the absence of Johnson for most of January. “His recent play isn’t from a lack of work; he’s just rusty. We have the utmost confidence in Reg, and it was only a matter of time before he got back rolling.
“He’s a double-double machine and a guy we’re going to go to down the stretch. He only makes us a better team.”
Said Durand Scott: “We got confident winning without Reggie. With Reggie back, we’re just trying to add him to the bandwagon.”
After UM coach Jim Larranaga took a timeout, Shane Larkin used a ball screen to try to either free himself or one of Miami’s big guys as the Canes had the ball with 10.9 seconds left and trailed by one point. Larkin used the screen and got the switch Larranaga was looking for, which enabled Johnson to move inside against a smaller Wolfpack defender. Larkin missed the shot, and Johnson was in the lane to tip it in with 0.9 seconds left, setting off yet another UM on-court celebration.
For Johnson and Gamble, two high school products from the North Carolina, wins already this season over Duke, North Carolina and NC State — programs with a combined 11 national championships — are a special part of the team’s nine-game winning streak.
“This was fun man,” said Johnson, who finished with 15 points as one of five Canes in doubles figures. “It was the CBS game, sold out, both teams going back and forth, and N.C. State was picked to win the ACC, so to come in here and get a win was really special.”