One is a soft-spoken, piano-playing native of Cameroon. Two are gregarious big men who grew up along Tobacco Road, N.C., in the heart of ACC country. Another comes from Milwaukee, Wisc., and is the nephew of an Olympic track gold medalist and a former NBA player. The fifth is a hard-nosed kid from the Bronx.
Kenny Kadji. Reggie Johnson. Julian Gamble. Trey McKinney Jones. Durand Scott.
The seniors on the sixth-ranked University of Miami basketball team come from varying backgrounds, but share a common goal: The burning desire to win the first outright conference title in school history, and to play in their first NCAA Tournament.
They can clinch that first milestone on “Senior Day” Saturday afternoon with a win over Clemson in their regular-season finale at the BankUnited Center. The Hurricanes (23-6, 14-3 ACC) had a chance to secure the regular-season ACC title against Georgia Tech on Wednesday. A net-cutting ceremony was planned, complete with confetti and a season highlight montage. But the Yellow Jackets got hot in the second half and squelched the party 71-69.
A sellout crowd — the fifth this season — is expected Saturday.
“What better storybook ending would you want than closing out the ACC championship on your home court, on Senior Day, the last chance you’re going to have to play at the BankUnited Center,” said Gamble. “Wednesday night we really needed to make a statement and we didn’t. Georgia Tech came out and played a little better than us. Clemson’s going to give us their absolute best effort, as well. We have to make sure we don’t let these opportunities go to waste.”
UM coach Jim Larranaga has known the seniors less than two years, as he inherited the group when he took over the team in April 2011. Nevertheless, he feels a special bond with them
“They’re the foundation of the program,” said Larranaga. “Whenever you inherit a large group, you have to work with the players you have, and they’ve done a great job of making a transition to a new staff. They’ll go down as the winningest team in Miami history in terms of accomplishing things that had never been done before: Knocking off the No. 1 team in the country, winning both games against Carolina during the regular season, beating FSU twice, regular-season champion or co-champion. There’s been a lot of firsts.”
The journey has not been easy for any of the seniors. Kadji transferred from the University of Florida. McKinney Jones transferred from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Gamble is a sixth-year senior after being redshirted as a freshman and sitting last season with injuries. Johnson also redshirted as a freshman, missed nine games last season following knee surgery and was suspended a game for an NCAA infraction. And Scott served a six-game suspension for NCAA infractions.
Those obstacles have made the group more resilient, Larranaga said. “These guys have very serious goals, and whenever a roadblock is thrown in their way, they have to take a detour around it and realize, ‘Hey, this is my last chance. I need to make this work.’ It makes them a little hungrier, a little more willing to sacrifice, and it makes them a little more attentive to detail.’’
The seniors expect an emotional Saturday.
“It’s going to bittersweet,” Kadji said. “Miami has been great. Playing at the BUC has been great. The things we’ve done over this season have been amazing to me.’’
Added Gamble: “Six years here, going through everything I’ve been through, having this dream season -- This is where my heart and soul are, so it’s going to be emotional, but at the same time, I’m going to have extra energy because I want to go out with a win.”