WASHINGTON -- Julian Gamble watched the basketball flirt with the net only to dance away so many times Thursday that he had to wonder if the inanimate object was harboring a personal grudge against the University of Miami during the team’s 71-61 undoing by Marquette.
“Shooting those same shots got us 29 wins this season,” Gamble said. “But when they go in and out and in and out, it really hurts your confidence and kills your energy.”
The rim was not kind to the Canes in their Sweet Sixteen game of the NCAA Tournament. It was a tease. The ball kissed it, bounced on it, rolled around it and clanged off it but would not be swallowed by it.
That was the demoralizing, infuriating end of a remarkable, historic story for the Hurricanes. They could not make shots. The basket might as well have been as tall as the nearby Washington Monument.
The final score was deceiving. It wasn’t that close. Halfway through the first half, the Hurricanes had scored a grand total of five points. They never recovered. They trailed by 21 with 10 minutes left. They missed 18 of 26 three-pointers. They made just 35 percent of their field goal attempts.
It wasn’t complicated, and it won’t require the usual detailed analytical breakdown by UM Coach Jim Larranaga.
“When you can’t put the ball in the basket, you really have a hard time staying with a team like Marquette,” Larranaga said. “We didn’t have the juice that you need to play great basketball. It started right from the very beginning, you could see it.”
A March Madness pick of many bracketologists, UM’s journey ended at the same signpost encountered by the 2000 team. The Sweet Sixteen was nice, but the Elite Eight would have been better and the Final Four was the true destination.
A night after the Miami Heat’s winning streak was halted at 27 in Chicago, a team from Milwaukee – Dwyane Wade’s alma mater -- halted UM’s season.
All NCAA Tournament runs end abruptly. But the manner in which UM lost made the conclusion doubly painful.
“I don’t feel like we were all on the same page, and we dug ourselves a deep hole,” said Durand Scott, who finished 3-for-13. “But we definitely put our hearts on the line.”
After dominating the ACC and beating Pacific and Illinois in the first two rounds of the tournament, UM looked out of character. Slithery guards Scott and Shane Larkin could not find a path through Marquette’s defense. Among UM’s 63 shots, too many were odd or hurried. When UM managed to hold its own against Marquette’s bigs inside, UM didn’t capitalize on second and third chances close to the basket.
“They were trapping me and trying to get the ball out of my hands and it was frustrating not being able to attack it,” Larkin said. “When I got into the lane against Illinois I was able to kick it out but we weren’t hitting those shots.”
Marquette’s space eaters controlled the paint, as expected, but by a insurmountable 40-24 margin running what occasionally looked like a layup line. UM’s out-of-whack offense managed only five fast-break points.
As time ebbed away, UM needed a hot hand, a Plan C or a calamitous collapse by Marquette.
“It’s unlike any game we’ve had this year,” assistant coach Erick Konkol said. “We thought we’d make a run. Their calling card is closing up the lane. When we did get past them, the shots were there, but we didn’t make them. They’re a driving, attacking team that thrives on paint touches and we didn’t stop them defensively, either.”
When Davante Gardner put away an uncontested dunk with 3:21 left, UM looked nothing like the smooth, savvy unit that earned a No. 2 seed and was favored by many to be the East Region’s rep in Atlanta next week.
Led by the wily Larranaga and six seniors, the 2012-13 team rewrote history by becoming the first at UM to win the conference season title outright and the ACC tournament. They were the first to beat a No. 1-ranked opponent. The first to rise as high as No. 2 in the national rankings. The first to defeat Duke and North Carolina by 25-plus points in the same season.
In the end, though, UM got no farther than the 2000 Hurricanes, who lost to Tulsa.
No. 3 seed Marquette slowed the pace and pushed the Canes out on the floor, away from their sweet spots. UM responded by rushing on offense. The Canes pulled down three offensive rebounds after missing three shots in one sequence late in the first half but couldn’t score. Minutes later, the same thing: Scott clawed under the basket but couldn’t get the ball to go down on three consecutive shots, each time rebounding his own miss. Bonk. Ricochet. Roll.
The exit won’t negate the memories and accomplishments of a season that created not only a stir in Coral Gables but nationwide for a program forever changed.
“It’s sad it’s over and sad we didn’t play our best basketball but the program is headed in the right direction,” Kenny Kadji said.
Even in the downcast locker room, Larkin couldn’t help but smile.
“It was fun,” Larkin said. “We started as a little team nobody knew about. We lost to Florida Gulf Coast and nobody believed in us and thought we’d just be at the bottom of the ACC.
“It was like a rock-star season. It’s something you’ll never forget.”