Two weeks ago the UM men’s basketball team made its season debut in the conference and led Virginia Tech by 13 in the second half just to squander the lead and fall 61-60 in overtime.
Since that loss left a persistent sting that permeated through an ensuing 11-day layoff between games, Miami had been looking to play a complete game.
Sunday afternoon the Hurricanes got exactly that in a battle of two Sweet 16 teams from last season’s NCAA Tournament who this season have hovered around .500. UM shot 47 percent from the field and held La Salle to 38 percent shooting to take down the Explorers 71-58 at the BankUnited Center.
Rion Brown led the charge for the Canes (7-5, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) with 17 points and nine rebounds.
“That’s been in the back of our minds since that game,” Brown says of the Virginia Tech loss. “That’s just playing a whole game for 40 minutes, and I think honestly this is the first time we played a full 40-minute game.”
Added coach Jim Larrañaga, “This is our best game of the season so far.”
Garrius Adams scored 13, and James Kelly addedd 10. The Canes finished with 15 offensive rebounds, 17 second-chance points and 32 points in the paint.
Forward Donnavan Kirk anchored the Hurricanes defense with four blocks, including one in the second half that he swatted into the stands and followed with a vicious stare-down aimed at the La Salle shooter.
Kirk has at least one block in all 12 games this season.
“You need somebody to regulate the paint,” says Kirk, who is now in his second stint with the Hurricanes after transferring to DePaul to play his past two seasons. “If you get in there and prove yourself as a shot blocker, that forces other teams to realize, ‘Look, I can’t come in this paint.’ ”
Sophomore center Tonye Jekiri, a projected starter entering the season who has struggled to score and since found himself back in a reserve role, scored a career-high nine points. On three occasions teammates found him for alley-oop dunks — twice it was Brown finding him.
“Rion deserves the credit for that. They’ve been playing together for a couple of years now. He knows what Tonye’s looking for,” Larrañaga said. “Not only did he hit Tonye, but he got James Kelly one like that as well.”
La Salle senior guard Sam Mills, who hails from Sunrise and attended Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons High School, finished second on the team with 15 points. Mills had his own compact cheering section behind the Explorers bench.
Tyreek Duren led La Salle (6-6) with 18 points, and Miami held Tyrone Garland, the Explorers’ leading scorer, to three points on 1-of-7 shooting.
The Canes reeled off separate scoring runs of 10-0 and 9-0 in the first half and led 34-24 at halftime.
Sunday’s affair began with the appearance of an up-and-down-the-floor shootout with Miami surrendering 12 points in the first 3:18 of game time. The Canes then held La Salle to 12 points the rest of the first half with a zone defense that was hustling back in transition.
“The defense got back. It stopped them, made it more difficult. We challenged shots,” Larrañaga said. “We’ve never been a zone team, but this team is developing a good mentality for it.”
Miami now plays another nonconference home game against Loyola (Md.) on Dec. 30 before diving into full-fledge ACC mode with a road game against new conference foe Syracuse.
Larrañaga said he will spend three days relaxing with his wife in Sarasota before returning to practice the day after Christmas on Thursday.