Here is a sentence University of Miami men’s basketball fans probably never thought they would read: The fifth-ranked Hurricanes can clinch their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship by beating Duke on Saturday.
Their first ACC title. In basketball. Not football.
Take a moment to digest that thought.
The UM team that started the season unranked and a middle-of-the-pack pick in the ACC is on the verge of earning the league title after cruising past Virginia Tech 76-58 on Wednesday night in front of a near-capacity crowd of 7,434 at BankUnited Center.
UM (23-4, 14-1) now heads into the nationally televised road showdown against No.3 Duke.
Miami sophomore guard Shane Larkin had NBA scouts raising eyebrows and scribbling notes as he scored 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting, dished out six assists and held NCAA scoring leader Erick Green to 16 points, nine shy of his season average and tied for his low against an ACC opponent this season. Green had scorched the Canes for 30 points when they last played on Jan. 30 at Blacksburg.
“We had no answer for him,” Virginia Tech coach James Johnson said of Larkin. “He’s very tough. He does a very good job of reading screens, changes speed, he can jump up and make the three. He’s a difficult matchup. He’s an all-around player — tough, strong, ultra-competitive, fast, and he doesn’t say a word out there. Just plays the game and enjoys it.”
Kenny Kadji, UM’s rangy 6-11 senior forward/center, killed the Hokies inside the paint and beyond the arc for 20 points. Trey McKinney Jones chipped in 11.
The Hurricanes were coming off a loss at Wake Forest, a slip-up that snapped the 14-game win streak they had going since Christmas Day. They had the much-anticipated Duke game looming. But they managed to stay focused on the task at hand against the Hokies.
“It was an important game,” said Larkin. “A lot of people were going to see how we’d react to the game at Wake Forest, how we’d respond to a loss like that. I think we came out and imposed our will early and did a good job.”
Kadji concurred that the Canes had refocused upon arriving home from the loss to the Demon Deacons. He said they had two very good practices Monday and Tuesday.
“We knew we had to bounce back because people would be watching us,” Kadji said. “And with a guy like Erick Green on that team, they always have a chance to win.”
Green, who had scored 20 or more points in 25 of 27 games this season, was held to six first-half points.
“He’s a great player,” Larkin said. “They set a lot of ball screens for him. You have to be very attentive to where he is on the court. I just tried to stay glued to him as close as I could and chase him off every ball screen, and my teammates did a great job of helping me when he tried to penetrate in the lane. It was a team effort. We all did a great job guarding him.”
The Canes jumped to a quick 9-2 lead, and had opened it up to 29-16 on three Kadji free throws with 4:14 to go before halftime. UM went on a 23-5 run to close out the first half and take a 38-19 lead. Their intensity dropped a bit at the start of the second half, but they were never in danger. They took their biggest lead — 62-37 — on a three-pointer by Rion Brown with 10:31 remaining.
Hokies coach Johnson was an assistant under Jim Larranaga at George Mason, so he said he never doubted the Canes would be ready to play on Wednesday.
Durand Scott was held out of the UM starting lineup for showing up late to shootaround, but he entered the game at the five-minute mark and finished with nine points and three assists in 30 minutes.
The Hurricanes now turn their focus to Duke, whom they beat by 27 points at home last month.
“It’s going to be a big game,’’ Larkin said. “I know they want revenge. They have videos of people with ‘Revenge’ across their chests. They’ll have a lot of hype around their school and program for that game and it will be a good battle between two good teams.”