If there was still any question whether the No.8 University of Miami basketball program has officially arrived, it was answered at around 4 p.m. Saturday in the front row of BankUnited Center.
Heat stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and James Jones leaped to their feet and cheered along with the sellout crowd as Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji threw down a thunderous dunk off a slick backboard assist from Shane Larkin, giving UM a 24-point lead over the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Canes, playing with a swagger reminiscent of the UM football teams of the 1980s, toyed with the Heels, making their 87-61 victory look like a lopsided playground game.
UM tied a school record with 15 three-pointers, extended its win streak to 11 games and improved its record to 19-3 and 10-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Miami is the only team of the six power conferences with an unbeaten league record and became the first team since the ACCs inception in 1953 to beat Duke and North Carolina by 25-plus points in the same season.
With losses by No. 1 Indiana, No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Michigan and No. 5 Kansas, the Hurricanes could move into the top 5. No UM team has ever been ranked higher than eighth, and that has happened only twice now and 53 years ago.
Heck, some TV analysts even suggested UM should get votes for No. 1. Yes, No. 1, as in top dog of college basketball. Read that again slowly. This is really happening. UM could win an ACC basketball title before it wins one in football. Whod have thunk it?
Nobody is happier for the Canes than Jones, the Heat forward, a UM alum who played from 1999 to 2003.
An amazing thing
This is a dream realized, he said. When I signed here in 99, they were promising an on-campus arena and I had thoughts and dreams of playing in front of a packed house against Syracuse, UConn, St. Johns. My senior year, I was here for the christening of the building against North Carolina, and got a brief glimpse of what it could be here.
Im so glad that as a player for the Miami Heat, I can watch up close how this program is excelling and building a fan base. Its an amazing thing going on here.
Larkin, the clever and steady sophomore guard, led the Canes with 18 points and a career-high nine assists. He made 5 of8 three-point attempts. Durand Scott and Kadji had 17 points apiece, and Scott also had six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Rion Brown kicked in 11 points, and Julian Gamble had eight points, four blocks and six rebounds.
UM made 13 of its first 19 three-point attempts, including one at the halftime buzzer by Kadji to give the Canes a 44-27 lead. The orange-clad students chanted: Larra-naga! Larra-naga! as the Canes headed to the locker room. UM coach Jim Larranaga is already being mentioned as a national coach of the year candidate.
After the game, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams and his team trudged off the court, beaten by UM for the second time this season. The Canes shot 54 percent, best by any UNC opponent this season.
They were hitting on all cylinders, and all those clichés that you want to use, Williams said. We didnt have many answers for them. Larkin just dominated the game. Hes really, really good. Miamis pretty doggone good.