Slowed by a pair of artificial hips, University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga climbed gingerly up the ladder Saturday afternoon, scissors in hand, a sellout BankUnited Center crowd cheering him on, orange confetti littered all over the court, and an ill-fitting “ACC Champions!” T-shirt pulled over his suit and tie.
Blaring from the speakers was Drake’s rap song: Started From the Bottom. The music is not exactly Larranaga’s style, but it has become the rallying cry for this plucky Hurricanes team, which rose from unranked and unnoticed to No. 6 in the nation (as high as No. 2 a few weeks ago) and Atlantic Coast Conference regular- season champion after Saturday’s 62-49 win over Clemson.
The coach clipped off what was left of the net, let out a few of his trademark piercing whistles, and waved that net around so hard it looked like his shoulder might come out of its socket. Larranaga then placed the net over his head and around his neck as if it were a diamond necklace.
“It’s a piece of memorabilia you will keep for a lifetime,” Larranaga said. “I still have pieces of net from years and years and years ago. It’s something players feel is very special. You don’t get to do it all the time. Some programs do it like almost annually. But we haven’t done that here. When you do anything for the first time, it’s very, very exciting.”
The Hurricanes finished the regular season 24-6 overall and 15-3 in the ACC. Atop Duke. Atop North Carolina. Their 24 wins ties the school record set in 2001-02, when the Canes went 24-8. They will be the No. 1 seed when the ACC tournament opens Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.
The ladder, confetti and video montage had been on hold since Wednesday night, when the Canes were upset by Georgia Tech. Those three days of waiting and anxiety made the postgame celebration all the sweeter, as did the fact it happened on Senior Day, with the families of the team’s five seniors in town for the big occasion.
Those proud mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and cousins were treated to quite the emotional afternoon. So was the crowd of 7,972, which included Heat owner Micky Arison and former UM and Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.
“It felt good,” senior Trey McKinney Jones said of cutting the net. “We accomplished one of our goals. But this is not the last net I plan on cutting down.”
Added sixth-year senior Julian Gamble: “It was surreal, hard to describe. This is something we’ve all dreamed about. After that loss Wednesday, we put a little bit more pressure on ourselves, but what better night to do it than Senior Night, for us seniors on our last time in this gym to win the outright championship is great.
“Going from being last in ACC, to being a team with a lot of expectations and not really living up to them, to this year people not thinking we were as good as we turned out to be. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
Gamble’s only complaint was that the scissors were dull, and players had a hard time snipping the net. “That’s the same scissors we use to cut our tape off every day, so we’ll try to have some sharper ones when we get to Greensboro.”
Of the seniors, Kenny Kadji had the biggest day. He was the game’s leading scorer with a season-high 23 points and also had a game-high 12 rebounds. The score was tied 25-25 at halftime, and Kadji scored seven consecutive points early in the second half to open up a 34-28 lead. His three with 3:10 remaining put UM up 55-41.