The University of Miami men’s basketball team ruined Senior Night at the Dean Dome when Ja’Quan Newton’s Hail Mary three-pointer beat the buzzer and the North Carolina Tar Heels 91-88 on Tuesday night.
Against all odds, UM sank UNC during the emotional crest of the final home game for Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson and recorded its signature win of the season on the threshold of March Madness.
UM, which has been a thorn in UNC’s side during the Jim Larranaga era, built a 16-point lead then fended off the ninth-ranked defending national champions, who tied the score on Berry’s three-pointer with five seconds left. But the screaming crowd went silent as Newton flung a 35-footer from near the half court sideline that swished through the net a tick before time expired.
1. Newton’s law: Newton defied physics and redeemed himself in the spotlight of what has been an inconsistent senior season with the game winner that left fans’ jaws agape and him at the bottom of a pile of joyous teammates. Newton scored Miami’s final seven points and hit four free throws in the last 25 seconds. He called for Anthony Lawrence II to in-bound the ball to him, charged up court with one eye on the clock, elevated above Berry’s outstretched hands and let it fly. He’d practiced half court shots at the shootaround "and felt like he was going to make one," Chris Lykes said.
"As soon as Berry hit the shot, I came around and I wanted the ball.When I was dribbling up court and it said three seconds left, I was like, ‘I’ve got to shoot it.’ And once I did, it felt good coming out of my hand and then my mom made it go in for me,” Newton said of his mother, who died in 2014. “I always watch it on TV, somebody does it, and for me to actually do it in this moment out there against North Carolina is something I will remember forever."
Larranaga said the shot was the culmination of a change of attitude for Newton, who had been frustrated. "For a long time he was putting too much pressure on himself," Larranaga said. "He was angry at himself, angry at his teammates and angry at me. But the last couple weeks he’s been smiling like crazy. That team spirit is what you need and it had been lacking."
Said Berry: “I am stunned. I always think if we go into overtime that is going to be our game, but they stepped up and hit a big time shot.”
2. Maestro Larranaga: The crafty coach is now 6-5 against UNC in his seven years at UM -- and the Hurricanes have won six of the past nine meetings. He knows how to prepare for the Tar Heels, always presenting a game plan with seven offensive and seven defensive keys. On Tuesday he opted for his smaller, better ball-handling starting lineup against the Tar Heels, who have been playing Coach Roy Williams’ version of Small Ball most of the season. His deft substitutions resulted in six players scoring in double figures and five playing 25-plus minutes in what he called "the best I’ve balanced the playing time, which is the hardest thing I have to do."
Different players came up big at different junctures: Ebuka Izundu in the first half; Chris Lykes and Dewan Huell in the middle of the game; Lawrence, Newton and Lonnie Walker IV down the stretch. UM made eight of eight free throws in the last three minutes. Larranaga did not call a timeout after Berry tied the score, which prevented UNC from setting its defense.
"UNC is not a team, it’s a program and a system that’s been in effect since Dean Smith was here," Larranaga said. "Roy does a lot of the things he did at Kansas and a lot that he learned from Dean."
3. A lot to Lykes: The 5-foot-7 freshman "pint" guard continues to bedevil opponents, juking and weaving his way through the thicket of larger bodies to create opportunities for himself and teammates. His steal and three-pointer gave UM’s its largest lead at 59-43 and he finished with 18 points and four assists. Early on, he gave Berry a headache -- but was late to react to Berry’s barrage of clutch shots in the closing minutes.
"I tried to make things difficult for him and take him out of his rhythm," Lykes said. "But he got in his zone. I’ve been looking up to him for years. I’ve learned a lot from him."
4. On the defensive: UM committed to the paint and defending the rim to reduce UNC’s second-chance points but allowed UNC too much elbow room on the perimeter as the game wore on and the Tar Heels took advantage. Especially damaging were UNC’s 13 three-pointers. Walker’s foul on Cameron Johnson’s three-point attempt in the final minute gave Johnson a chance to tie the score but he missed his third free throw. Johnson, Pinson and Luke Maye hurt UM all over the court and had an abundance of open looks. Berry scored 31 -- with 17 points and four three-pointers in the last 5:35. UNC had a 31-26 rebounding edge.
"You know Carolina will make a run and you have to stay calm," Larranaga said. "They scored 88 points. The expression we use with Carolina and Duke is, first team to 80 wins. Against Virginia it’s first to 50 wins."
5. Post-season implications: UM (21-8, 10-7) reached the 20-win plateau with its breathless comeback over Boston College, now has a head-turning road win against a top-10 opponent and closes the regular season at home Saturday against Virginia Tech (21-9, 10-7), which just upended Duke. It’s crowded in the middle of the ACC pack but UM could rise to third or fourth if it finishes 11-7. As a result of Tuesday’s victory in Chapel Hill, Miami’s RPI rose from 31 to 24 and its KenPom rating improved from 41 to 36 – good timing as the ACC Tournament and NCAA seedings are just around the corner, and selection committee members love peaking teams.