Three times in less than five seconds Tuesday night, Virginia’s Akil Mitchell tried to shoot over Miami Hurricanes’ center Julian Gamble.
All three times, Gamble used his left hand to reject Mitchell.
It was an impressive bit of defense by the 6-10, 250-pound Gamble, but because it happened in the first couple of minutes in the Canes’ 54-50 win over Virginia, it wasn’t even mentioned in most media reports.
Still, the sequence was a fitting metaphor for a player who doesn’t give up easily and has come back from a serious knee injury to have a major impact on the nation’s second-ranked team.
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“Obviously, we didn’t have Julian last year,” Canes coach Jim Larranaga said, referring to the ACL injury sustained by Gamble in the summer of 2011. “You can see the impact he’s had, the difference between our team last season and this season.”
The Canes last season were 20-13 overall and 9-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, failing to make the NCAA Tournament. This season, the Canes, who visit Wake Forest at 1 p.m. Saturday, are 22-3 and 13-0 in the ACC.
Many experts predict the Canes will be not only be a lock to make the NCAA Tournament but a probable No. 1 seed if they stay on track.
Gamble said he thinks team first, even if fans have made a big deal of his blocks against the Cavaliers, sending the video to his Facebook page and Twitter.
“I think it personifies our team being relentless on the defensive end and not giving up layups,” said Gamble, who is working on his master’s degree in liberal arts. “A lot of guys after the first block would maybe go for a pump fake and foul on the second or third [shot]. But I just stayed down and stayed disciplined.”
That discipline has helped Gamble, 23, through a six-year college career in which he has been either injured or ineffective for most of his stay at Miami before this season.
In fact, his 19 starts this season are only five fewer than he had combined in his previous five years.
Gamble only became a starter this season after Reggie Johnson injured his thumb before the Canes’ tournament in Hawaii. But Gamble’s stellar play, which includes ranking fourth in the ACC with 2.0 blocks per game, has kept Johnson on the bench since.
Johnson said he’d prefer to start, but …
“We’re winning,” he said, “and I’m very happy for Julian.”
Gamble has made the most of his opportunity. His 50 total blocks are a career high, and his scoring (6.8) and rebounding averages (5.2) are far better than his previous bests of 4.0 and 3.5, respectively.
Gamble is shooting .557 from the field, focusing almost exclusively on put-backs, dunks and post moves. His only glaring weakness is a .463 percentage from the foul line.
He is also part of an impressive four-post-player rotation that includes Kenny Kadji, who is the best shooter of the quartet; Johnson, the top rebounder; and freshman Tonye Jekiri, who is getting valuable experience for the future.
Larranaga said Gamble has made amazing progress in his recovery from the ACL injury.
“At this time last year, Julian was limping,” the coach said. “He couldn’t run. He couldn’t jump.
“But he worked so hard last summer. He lost 20 to 25 pounds. He got much stronger. By September, he was running and jumping, and I just knew he was going to be a major factor.”