For the second year in a row, the University of Miami men’s basketball team will have to face the critical final stretch of its season without point guard Ja’Quan Newton.
Newton, a junior starter and the team’s second-leading scorer, was suspended for three games for violating team rules, the school announced before Wednesday night’s 70-61 victory against Georgia Tech at the Watsco Center.
He will also miss Saturday’s game against Clemson and Monday’s game at No. 14 Virginia. Newton had started all 24 games and was averaging 15 points. It is not the first time he has gotten into trouble. Newton was also suspended last February and had to miss the final three games of the season.
“My job as a coach is to mentor these young men, try to set the right example and send the right messages to them,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said. “For the most part they listen. But we can’t be with them 100 percent of the time. They’ve got to learn to make good decisions when I’m not looking over their shoulder. If a guy doesn’t make the right decision, we need to send a message to him that that’s not acceptable in our program. Hopefully, the message is heard loud and clear. But they’re kids. They make mistakes.”
Newton watched from the bench as his teammates stepped up and put away the resurgent Yellow Jackets by crashing the boards, shooting 55 percent and getting to the free-throw line 27 times while Georgia Tech had only three trips to the line. UM coaches had instructed the players to back off and stay out of foul trouble. They obliged.
Senior captain Davon Reed led the Hurricanes with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Reed played some point guard in place of Newton, as did freshmen Bruce Brown (battling tonsillitis) and D.J. Vasiljevic, the Australian three-point specialist who scored 13 points. Freshman Dewan Huell also chipped in 13 points despite a foot injury that kept him out of practice.
“We got our butts kicked on the glass, got our butts kicked at the free-throw line,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. “Our margin for error is zero. If we’re not darn near perfection it makes it really hard for us.”
Pastner said he had never coached a game in which his team had only three free-throw attempts.
“If Miami shoots 27 free throws and we shoot three, it’s awfully hard for us to win a game,” he said.
Former Heat star Chris Bosh, a Georgia Tech alum, was at the Watsco Center and visited with the Yellow Jackets before and after the game.
“He honored us with his time and gave us some great words,” Pastner said.
Sophomore center Ebuka Izundu was added to UM’s starting lineup in place of Newton and played well before cramping and leaving the game in the second half. The other starters were Brown, Reed, Anthony Lawrence and Kamari Murphy, who had nine points and eight rebounds.
The Canes opened the game with a three-pointer by Reed and a thunderous dunk by Murphy. They traded leads with the Yellow Jackets, went ahead 24-17 on a Vasiljevic three and a three-point play by Reed, and maintained the lead for the rest of the half.
Miami was up 38-32 at halftime. But Georgia Tech tied it 43-43 early in the second half after a steal and three-point basket by Quinton Stephens.
Reed made a three to give UM a 48-46 lead it would never lose despite a late-game rally by the Jackets.
The Hurricanes led by as many as 13 following an 8-0 run. Georgia Tech closed the gap to 65-58 with back-to-back threes, but Miami managed to stay ahead and overcome a four-minute scoring drought and four turnovers in the final five minutes.
“The odds were against us a little bit,” Reed said. “We were down but everybody stepped up. Coach emphasized this week that we were brought here because we can play. He was building us up, encouraging us to have fun, play hard on defense, calm on offense, and I feel we were able to do that.”
The Canes (17-8, 7-6 ACC) faced a tough test against the Yellow Jackets (15-11, 6-7), who this season had already upset North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame. Georgia Tech is the surprise team of the league after being picked second-to-last in the preseason poll. First-year coach Pastner is a leading candidate for ACC Coach of the Year after lifting the Yellow Jackets from league bottom-feeder to an overachieving team poised to make its first NCAA Tournament since 2010.
UM and Georgia Tech were jockeying for position in the conference standings and trying to boost their résumés before March.
Freshman Josh Okogie led the Yellow Jackets with 18 points on Wednesday, and Ben Lammers, a 6-10 junior who the Canes recruited heavily, added 15.
Miami outrebounded Tech 31-17.