Slowed by a pair of artificial hips, University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga climbed gingerly up the ladder Saturday afternoon, scissors in hand, a sellout BankUnited Center crowd cheering him on, orange confetti littered all over the court, and an ill-fitting “ACC Champions!” T-shirt pulled over his suit and tie.
Blaring from the speakers was Drake’s rap song: Started From the Bottom. The music is not exactly Larranaga’s style, but it has become the rallying cry for this plucky Hurricanes team, which rose from unranked and unnoticed to No. 6 in the nation (as high as No. 2 a few weeks ago) and Atlantic Coast Conference regular- season champion after Saturday’s 62-49 win over Clemson.
The coach clipped off what was left of the net, let out a few of his trademark piercing whistles, and waved that net around so hard it looked like his shoulder might come out of its socket. Larranaga then placed the net over his head and around his neck as if it were a diamond necklace.
“It’s a piece of memorabilia you will keep for a lifetime,” Larranaga said. “I still have pieces of net from years and years and years ago. It’s something players feel is very special. You don’t get to do it all the time. Some programs do it like almost annually. But we haven’t done that here. When you do anything for the first time, it’s very, very exciting.”
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The Hurricanes finished the regular season 24-6 overall and 15-3 in the ACC. Atop Duke. Atop North Carolina. Their 24 wins ties the school record set in 2001-02, when the Canes went 24-8. They will be the No. 1 seed when the ACC tournament opens Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.
The ladder, confetti and video montage had been on hold since Wednesday night, when the Canes were upset by Georgia Tech. Those three days of waiting and anxiety made the postgame celebration all the sweeter, as did the fact it happened on Senior Day, with the families of the team’s five seniors in town for the big occasion.
Those proud mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and cousins were treated to quite the emotional afternoon. So was the crowd of 7,972, which included Heat owner Micky Arison and former UM and Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.
“It felt good,” senior Trey McKinney Jones said of cutting the net. “We accomplished one of our goals. But this is not the last net I plan on cutting down.”
Added sixth-year senior Julian Gamble: “It was surreal, hard to describe. This is something we’ve all dreamed about. After that loss Wednesday, we put a little bit more pressure on ourselves, but what better night to do it than Senior Night, for us seniors on our last time in this gym to win the outright championship is great.
“Going from being last in ACC, to being a team with a lot of expectations and not really living up to them, to this year people not thinking we were as good as we turned out to be. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
Gamble’s only complaint was that the scissors were dull, and players had a hard time snipping the net. “That’s the same scissors we use to cut our tape off every day, so we’ll try to have some sharper ones when we get to Greensboro.”
Of the seniors, Kenny Kadji had the biggest day. He was the game’s leading scorer with a season-high 23 points and also had a game-high 12 rebounds. The score was tied 25-25 at halftime, and Kadji scored seven consecutive points early in the second half to open up a 34-28 lead. His three with 3:10 remaining put UM up 55-41.
Sophomore guard Shane Larkin took charge, as usual. After missing his first seven shots, he hit back-to-back threes to give UM a 44-34 lead. All the seniors started, so he began the game on the bench. When he saw Clemson guard Jordan Roper put up 12 quick points, he asked Larranaga to let him guard Roper. Roper never scored again.
“Shane told me, ‘I’m ready to go, let me guard Roper,’ ” Larranaga said. “I’m very coachable, so I put Shane in and he guarded Roper.”
The coach said was he was relieved more than happy after the game.
“We had gotten distracted maybe because of all the media attention and no longer were the games as exciting and as much fun,” he said. “It was more of a job. And I felt like [Saturday] at halftime, the most important message was to remind the players to enjoy the process.
“If we told you before the year that we’d go 7-2 on the road in the ACC and 8-1 at home after we lost to St. Leo’s in the exhibition game, you’d have laughed your head off and said, ‘This guy is a fool.’ And I am. Because I’m foolish enough to dream big dreams.”
Only the long-suffering fans among the crowd Saturday could remember the last time there was a UM net-cutting ceremony.
It was exactly 13 years ago this week. Leonard Hamilton and his 23rd-ranked Canes had just claimed the co-Big East championship with Syracuse after stunning then-No. 18 St. John’s in overtime at Miami Arena. A crowd of 7,158 went berserk as Hamilton hung the net around his neck.
UM president Donna Shalala cut down a piece of net Saturday after the players. She admitted she was a bit nervous to go up there, but Reggie Johnson had her back.
“What a thrill,” Shalala said. “It means everything to the university, and I am so proud of Jim Larranaga. He’s a world-class teacher and making basketball fun here, and those young men have come so far in such a short period of time.”
UM athletic director Blake James, clutching his piece of net, said: “You see what Miami basketball can be. Coach Larranaga is a winner, from the X’s and O’s to community outreach to getting students involved. This is a very special day.”