It’s not the fire; it’s the spark.
Sheldon McClellan got the blaze going with two critical shots. The first was a three-pointer that tied the game at 55 with 1:59 to play, then a floater that gave Miami a two-point lead with a minute left.
But coach Jim Larrañaga credited fifth-year senior Joe Thomas with the spark that propelled the Hurricanes to a 63-61 victory over the Richmond Spiders to advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 31.
“[Thomas] came in with lots of energy, hustled all over the place and finished some shots around the rim,” Larrañaga said. “That ignited our team.”
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Thomas, who graduated from Dr. Michael D. Krop High School, scored a season-high seven points and grabbed six rebounds, all in the second half.
“Joe Thomas was the difference,” Larrañaga said. “That combination of his effort, hustle and defense in the press made the comeback possible.”
The Hurricanes trailed by 18 with 16:51 to go in the second half, but as they have shown all season, they play well on the road. The victory was their 10th on the road.
“We’ve been through it before,” McClellan said. “There’s something about this team; we don’t get rattled; we focus on the next play.”
Free-throw shooting was a difference, too. The Hurricanes didn’t toe the line in the first half but made 23 of 28 attempts in the second, including 12 of 14 in the final 5:30.
Thomas’ contributions off the bench were key, but an unexpected sixth man for Miami might have been the new 30-second clock, an experiment the NCAA is running during the NIT in an attempt to speed up the game.
“When they got it through the press, it was eight or nine seconds off the clock,” Larrañaga said. “They had to get organized and get in their half-court sets and didn’t have as much time to do what they normally do.”
Larrañaga said the shortened clock forced some Richmond shots and helped Miami to create offense from its defense, something it wasn’t able to do with Richmond scoring at will in the first half.
The Spiders opened the game with a 13-2 run that started with two three-pointers from 6-foot-9 forward T.J. Cline, the son of women’s basketball legend Nancy-Lieberman Cline. That, coupled with a lackadaisical defensive effort against Richmond’s Princeton offense, made it appear as if the Spiders had punched their ticket to Madison Square Garden.
Miami used a variety of looks before it was able to get things going. The Canes employed a five-guard lineup and tried playing McClellan and Ja’Quan Newton at the point.
McClellan paced the Hurricanes with 16 points. Sophomore Davon Reed struggled from the field but finished with a 10-point, 12-rebound double-double. Tonye Jekiri, the ACC’s leading rebounder, finished with 10 as Miami outrebounded Richmond 47-32.
Next up for Miami is the winner of Temple-Louisiana Tech. Those two teams play in Philadelphia on Wednesday night at 9 on ESPN2.