Maybe, despite coaches’ warnings not to look ahead, the looming “Big Monday” ESPN game against Duke had the Hurricanes distracted. Maybe, as University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga had insisted all week, Wake Forest is much better than its 1-6 conference record.
Or maybe Saturday’s noon start caught the Canes half asleep. The rest of the UM student body sure didn’t jump out of bed fired up, based on the empty seats at BankUnited Center. Afterward, Larrañaga asked: “Where were our students today? Sleeping in?”
Whatever the reason, the 15th-ranked Canes took a long time to get comfortable Saturday before finally putting the Demon Deacons away 77-63.
Miami (15-3, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) let an 11-point lead shrink to two just before halftime, missed a bunch of layups early in the second half, and the score was tied 48-48 with 10 minutes to go.
That’s when the Hurricanes clamped down on defense, and Sheldon McClellan and Ja’Quan Newton shifted up a gear. McClellan, who had just four points and one rebound at halftime, wound up with 14 points, six rebounds and three steals. Newton led all scorers with 18 points, 13 of them in the second half.
Angel Rodriguez added 14 points and five steals. And the Canes made 24 of their 28 free throws.
The Demon Decons’ shooting percentage dropped from 48 percent in the first half to 31 percent in the second half. And their record fell to 10-9 with the loss.
“I thought the biggest swing in the game came when it was tied 48-48,” said Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, the former Kansas and NBA star. “Miami stepped on the gas and created some separation from us, and we couldn’t keep up.”
Newton agreed: “Our defense and energy just stepped up, we got stops that led to fast breaks and open dunks.”
At 48-48, Newton leaped for an offensive rebound off a missed Rodriguez shot and scored to put UM ahead by two. On the next possession, Kamari Murphy grabbed a defensive rebound off a missed Wake Forest three-pointer and Rodriguez laid it in to open the Canes’ lead to four.
The next play best demonstrated McClellan’s competitive spirit and second-half energy. He outraced two Wake Forest players who were all the way across the court trying to avoid a backcourt violation, got fouled, made both free throws and the UM lead was up to six.
McClellan conceded that he’s “a second-half person,” although he couldn’t explain why.
Larrañaga has a theory: “I’ve heard that boxers feel each other out in the first couple of rounds. I think that is kind of what Sheldon does. He gets a sense of what’s going on in the first half and where his opportunities might come.”
Larrañaga told his team at halftime to pick up its energy, get stops, be happy and have fun. The coaching staff has been urging the players to relax and have fun the past few days. At practice Friday they played the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy. And then before Saturday’s game they pumped Happy by Pharrell Williams into the locker room. It was playing again after the win.
But the celebration won’t last long, with Duke ahead.