The University of Miami Hurricanes entered Wednesday night’s home game against Virginia Tech with the kind of mid-February résumé the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee looks for — 20 victories, No. 11 national ranking, 7-1 record over the previous eight games, and second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, ahead of traditional powerhouses Virginia, Duke, Louisville and Syracuse.
All they had to do was avoid getting tripped up by the hungry Hokies, who had lost six of their last seven games.
Miami ranks No. 9 in the latest RPI, and Virginia Tech 119, so a loss to the Hokies would be a major blemish on UM’s résumé come Selection Sunday. And for a while Wednesday night, it looked like Virginia Tech was going to pull off the upset.
But the Hurricanes rallied to beat the Hokies 65-49 and raise their record to 21-4 (10-3 in ACC) heading into Saturday’s road game against No. 5 North Carolina, which lost to Duke on Wednesday night. That loss dropped the Tar Heels into a tie for first place with the Hurricanes in the ACC.
“I’m very, very pleased with the win,” said UM coach Jim Larrañaga. “The second half we were able to get control of the game, got a lead we never relinquished. The key was team defense.”
Four UM players scored in double figures. Angel Rodriguez led with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Davon Reed had 12. Sheldon McClellan had 11, as did Tonye Jekiri. Kamari Murphy grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.
Miami won the game without sophomore guard Ja’Quan Newton, who was ill and watched from the bench in a sweat suit. Newton has been a spark off the bench and is the Hurricanes’ second-leading scorer with 11.4 points per game. A team release said Newton didn’t play “due to a medical condition. He is under the care of Miami doctors.” Larrañaga did not disclose Newton’s illness, saying only that team doctors would know more after examining him on Thursday.
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said before the game that the Hokies “will have problems from the very beginning.” But it was the Hurricanes who struggled mightily in the first half.
The Canes missed 12 of their first 14 shots, including their first six three-point attempts, and fell behind 15-10 at the eight minute mark. A clearly-frustrated UM coach Jim Larrañaga called a timeout to try to rally his troops.
Miami’s leading scorer, McClellan, was whistled for two early fouls, so he played only eight minutes and scored two points in the first half. His absence was felt.
UM ended the first half on a 7-1 run, ignited by a Reed three-pointer and a long jumper from Rodriguez, but the Canes still trailed 22-21 at halftime.
The second half was an entirely different story.
UM players came out energized, and took charge. They opened the half with an 14-2 run capped by a McClellan three-pointer and a pair of McClellan free throws. The 35-24 lead grew to a 21-point lead on a James Palmer layup with 4:14 to go.
The Hurricanes’ last two wins — against Pitt at home and Florida State on the road — were won by two points in the final minute. Wednesday, there was no such drama. By midway through the second half, they were clearly in control, and they never took their foot off the pedal.
The Hurricanes shot a blistering 68 percent in the second half after making just 30 percent of their shots in the first half. They also crashed the boards and held the Hokies to 29.6 percent shooting for the night.
“We couldn’t guard them, no matter what we tried,” said Williams.
Murphy was asked how the Canes continue to find ways to win, even when they fell behind. “It starts with our coaching staff and their game plan,” he said. “Then our veteran guys. And our will not to lose. We know what we’re chasing, so in late-game situations, we all lock in.”
The Hurricanes now face a daunting four-game stretch against four Top 20 teams. After playing the fifth-ranked Tar Heels on the road Saturday, they come home to face No. 7 Virginia at the BankUnited Center Monday night and No. 18 Louisville Feb. 27 and then hit the road to play No. 19 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
Virginia Tech dropped to 13-13, 5-8 in the ACC.