This is the time of year when every win or loss can make a difference in a team’s NCAA Tournament chances; and the University of Miami Hurricanes got a much-needed 77-74 road victory against Notre Dame on Monday night.
The Canes had never lost four games in a row under Coach Jim Larrañaga, and they made sure that stat didn’t change with the win over the Irish.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
The Hurricanes boosted their NCAA Tournament chances. With the win, Miami improved to 19-8 overall and 8-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference heading into the final three games of the regular season — at home Saturday against Boston College, on the road at North Carolina, and back home for the finale against Virginia Tech.
It was critical for UM to end its losing skid at three games because the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee typically likes to take teams with strong finishes and frowns upon teams that limp to the finish line.
Last year, a record nine ACC teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament, and UM got in with a 21-11 record. If the Canes win two of their final three games, they will be in good shape no matter how they do in the ACC tournament. If they win just one, they will likely need to win a game or two in the conference tournament.
Ebuka Izundu came up big. The junior center started his first game of the season and made his coaches look smart as he scored 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds, had three steals and two blocks. He was especially clutch in the second half, when he scored 10 of his points and got all his steals and blocks.
Larrañaga and his staff decided to start a big lineup against the Irish, so they called on Izundu and started senior Ja’Quan Newton at guard instead of 5-7 freshman Chris Lykes, who had started the past few games. Izundu’s post presence proved vital.
With two minutes to go, and UM holding a five-point lead, Izundu scored on a putback of a missed three by Anthony Lawrence to put Miami up by seven. Shortly thereafter, Izundu outmuscled three Irish players under the basket for another putback to give UM a 77-72 lead.
When the ESPN reporter was about to interview Izundu courtside after the game, Newton and DJ Vasiljevic stepped in front of the camera and yelled “Boooook!”
Walker raised his draft stock. Freshman Lonnie Walker IV was being projected as a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft even before he arrived on campus. He got injured during the summer, and it took him awhile to find his groove, but he has shown in recent games that he has the kind of athleticism and shooting ability that NBA scouts will notice.
Against Notre Dame, Walker went 5-of-7 from three-point range and scored 19 points. His triple from the left wing gave Miami a 65-62 lead it would never lose.
“Walker’s shots were pro stuff,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “He’s a first-round guy, my assistants told me, and he looked it tonight. He made some money tonight.”
Newton stepped up. Senior guard Newton was back in the starting lineup in place of freshman Lykes, and he delivered with 12 points, eight rebounds and a few nice passes at critical moments in the second half. Newton had said he didn’t mind coming off the bench, and actually enjoyed being able to assess the game for a little while before stepping in, but he was effective as a starter against the Irish.
Bruce Brown is missed. Although the Hurricanes have been managing without injured sophomore guard Bruce Brown, the team will be much better when he returns. Brown’s scoring, rebounding, defense and leadership are missed. He will likely miss the rest of the regular season, but could be back for the ACC tournament, and most certainly would play in the NCAA Tournament if the Canes get a berth.