It was Senior Day and Founders Day at BankUnited Center on Saturday, and the showdown between the 12th-ranked University of Miami Hurricanes and 11th-ranked Louisville Cardinals was everything those founders could have envisioned when they brought a dormant UM basketball program back to life in 1985 after a 14-year hiatus.
A sellout crowd of 7,342 — including a few busloads of red-clad Louisville fans — screamed its lungs out and was on its feet for much of the game as the Hurricanes knocked off the Cardinals 73-65 in an Atlantic Coast Conference thriller.
It was UM’s seventh win in its past eight games, and the Canes finished ACC play with a perfect 9-0 home record. They were 15-1 at the BUC over the whole season. Coming on the heels of a victory over No. 3 Virginia, UM could find itself in the top 10 of The Associated Press poll on Monday. The Canes also got a break from the Cavaliers later Saturday when Virginia knocked off No. 7 North Carolina, pulling UM into a tie with the Tar Heels for first place in the ACC at 12-4.
UM shot 53.5 percent and a blistering 73 percent from three point range (8 of 11).
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Senior Angel Rodriguez and junior Davon Reed led the Canes with 17 points apiece. Rodriguez also had seven assists and five rebounds, including a huge one in the closing minutes. Senior Sheldon McClellan added 13 points and was a big reason why Louisville’s leading scorer, Damion Lee, tied a season low with six points, 10 fewer than his average.
Louisville led 62-61 with 4:50 to go, but the Canes clamped down on defense and the Cardinals missed their next nine shots.
Cardinals coach Rick Pitino heaped praise on UM (23-5) after the game, even suggesting the Hurricanes could be a Final Four contender.
“Both teams played really good basketball, fun basketball, great passing, but they were the better team in the second half, and you’ve got to give them all the credit,” Pitino said. “Miami has all the tools because they shoot free throws well, they’re long, physical, and they have experience. They have a good backcourt.
“They have all the little things. They’re very well-coached. They can be one of many teams to win four games and get to a Final Four.”
The bigger the stage, the better Rodriguez seems to play. He was especially motivated on Saturday. He was playing his final home game in front of his mother, Jacqueline, who flew in from Puerto Rico, and his new bride, Jesenia, whom he married on Jan. 26 in a Miami court, with the big wedding planned for next year.
“It was a very emotional day, a game to remember,” Rodriguez said.
Midway through the second half, with the Canes trailing and in danger of letting the game get away, coach Jim Larrañaga called Rodriguez over during a timeout and gave him a pep talk.
“I said to him, ‘Listen, you need to show everybody in this arena how hard you’re willing to play to win this game, how important this is to you, and your teammates will follow,’ ” Larrañaga said. “I told him, ‘I want you to pick up their point guard full court and play with great defensive intensity, and you’ll see what happens.’ From that moment on, he was absolutely sensational. Best player on the court at both ends. Scoring, dishing, rebounding.”
UM’s coach went on to say that Rodriguez’s second-half performance “will go down in Miami basketball annals.”
Pitino was equally effusive about Miami’s 5-11 guard, the smallest man on the court.
“Angel is a much different player this year than he was last year,” Pitino said. “Last year, he was out of control. He was erratic. He was heavy. This year, he’s light, speed, smart. You’ve got to give credit to a player like that who turns his body and game around like that.”
The day began with bad news for UM. Sophomore guard Ja’Quan Newton was suspended for three games for violating team rules. He missed Saturday’s game and will sit out the final road games of the season against No. 23 Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.
“He’s a great kid, but he made a mistake and now he’s paying the price,” Larrañaga said. “We’re very fortunate the team didn’t have to pay the price today. But he’ll be back with us for the ACC tournament and learn from this lesson.”
UM will now be battling to stay in first place in the ACC during the final week of the regular season. The Hurricanes hit the road to play the Fighting Irish on Wednesday night. Louisville, which has a self-imposed postseason ban for allegations of NCAA rules violations, dropped to 22-7 overall, 11-5 in the ACC.