For weeks, University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga has been lobbying, crunching numbers and making arguments for his team’s inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.
But he and his players knew that despite a few signature road wins and a sixth-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference, their résumé had holes, and the best way to take chance and subjectivity out of the equation was to win a few games in the conference tournament.
A 59-49 win Wednesday night against conference basement-dweller Virginia Tech was closer than the score indicates, and probably won’t do much to impress the tournament selection committee. But it was enough to get UM to the quarterfinals, where a win against No. 3 seed Notre Dame on Thursday would be huge.
“It’s always great to win, regardless of how pretty or how ugly it was,” said UM point guard Angel Rodriguez, who returned from a wrist injury. “We never got into a rhythm, but at this point in the season it’s all about finding a way to win, and that’s what we did.”
The stands were more than half-empty Wednesday night, perhaps due to the 9:43 p.m. tipoff, or the fact that neither team was from North Carolina.
The draw worked in UM’s favor, as the Canes got a second-round matchup against the Hokies, whom UM had beaten by 20-plus points twice in the past three weeks, including by 21 just four days earlier in their regular-season finale at Blacksburg, Va.
In that game, Miami made 15 three-pointers, and that was with Rodriguez on the bench and Tonye Jekiri battling the flu.
“It was never a game [on Saturday],” said Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, who knew heading into Wednesday that the Hurricanes would be even more motivated than on Saturday.
“They’re playing for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, great coach, Final Four experience, two guys sit out that have had a phenomenal effect, the leading rebounder in the league, playing at a very high clip, we have to figure out how to slow them down.”
That they did. Nothing came easy for UM. The score was tied 15-15 with 6:55 to go in the first half, and the Canes led 25-19 at intermission following a 12-4 run to end the half. Sheldon McClellan scored seven straight points during that run, and swatted the Hokies’ final shot of the half into the second row. He led UM with 16 points and held Jalen Hudson to five points a day after he scored 32 against Wake Forest.
McClellan watched Hudson’s performance on TV and immediately after that game texted UM assistant coach Chris Caputo and told him he wanted to guard Hudson.
“Sheldon played 40 minutes of terrific basketball,” Larrañaga said. “I went to take him out once, and I turned to my staff and they said, ‘Nah, he never really gets tired.’ He made very good decisions. He was very calm. He did a yeoman’s job.”
Davon Reed added 10 points, Jekiri 9 and DeAndre Burnett 7, including a three-pointer late in the game that Larrañaga called “a dagger, a very important hoop for us.”
Miami got a boost from Rodriguez, who came off the bench for 5:25 in the first half and played sparingly in the second half. He finished with five points.
Rodriguez smiled and gave a thumbs-up as he entered the arena before the game. A right wrist sprain had limited the Hurricanes point guard to just three minutes of action in the previous two weeks, but he was feeling better and itching to play.
He said his wrist was “good enough to play,” and he plans to play again against Notre Dame. “As a competitor, I wanted to be out there. I’m just happy to help. I don’t care about how many minutes I play. Whenever Coach calls my name I’ll be ready.”
Rodriguez said he felt a twinge when he shot the ball and made a deflection, but he played through it. “You gotta play through injuries at this point of the year, so I’m going to go no matter what. Nothing’s going to stop me, unless Coach benches me.”
Virginia Tech ended the season 11-22. Miami improved to 21-11.
The Canes reached 20 wins for the third time in four years, but their résumé is hurt by a Ratings Percentage Index of 62 and Strength of Schedule of 68.
North Carolina State, which finished 19-12 in the ACC regular season, a spot behind UM, has an RPI of 45 and the nation’s sixth-ranked Strength of Schedule with victories against Duke, North Carolina and Louisville.
The Hurricanes took No. 2 Virginia to double overtime, but they had two bad home losses ‒ a 28-point loss to Eastern Kentucky and a 20-point loss to Georgia Tech. They also lost at Florida State. All are rated below 100 in the RPI, and Eastern Kentucky is No. 157.
CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm wrote in his column Wednesday: “Miami is among my first four out entering the day. The Hurricanes are still trying to make up for a high number of bad losses. The win at Duke is big, but not enough at this point. They can’t really help themselves by beating Virginia Tech, but they obviously need to do that to get to the games that can help.”