The plucky University of Miami basketball team had just advanced to the first conference championship in school history, just quieted nearly 22,000 opposing fans with an 81-71 semifinal win against North Carolina State, and surely made a case for a No.1 NCAA Tournament seed, hard as that might be for the nation’s college basketball bluebloods to stomach.
UM, ever the outsider in this basketball-crazed state, earned the right to play North Carolina for the ACC championship at 1p.m. on Sunday, further validating its regular-season first-place finish and No. 9 national ranking.
“We’re getting ready to play somebody who has beaten us twice by about eight million points,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said of UM, which actually won by margins of nine and 26.
“Miami deserves everything, all the special things that have been said about them. They have scorers at every position. [Kenny] Kadji is a tremendously difficult matchup. Julian Gamble and Big Reggie Johnson are loads inside. Shane Larkin has had as good a year as any point guard in college basketball. Durand Scott today was off the charts. Trey McKinney Jones and Rion Brown give them other shooters. They’re a big-time team and have shown it all year long.”
And where did the Canes (26-6) celebrate their momentous ACC tournament victory on Saturday? In a tiny makeshift game room in the bowels of the Greensboro Coliseum — a room big-time players often walk right past without notice.
Not these Canes. They’re having too much fun, soaking in every moment of this wild ride. Gamble played foosball with walk-on Steve Sorenson. Kadji, Johnson and Brown yukked it up on a sofa. Other players hit the video games.
The one player missing from the postgame party was Scott, who was still being interviewed by the media after scoring a career-high 32 points — the most by a UM player at an ACC tournament.
Scott doesn’t usually get the media attention Larkin or Kadji get, but ask any of his teammates or coaches, and they will tell you that the hard-nosed senior from the Bronx is the heart and soul of this Hurricanes team.
He was voted ACC Defender of the Year, and Saturday he proved to be a lethal scorer as well. Scott scored 11 of Miami’s first 14 points, had 19 by halftime, and he wasn’t done.
Dashing around the court in his florescent highlighter sneakers, he gave the Wolfpack fits. He drove through traffic to the basket like the daring South Florida drivers on I-95. When he wasn’t beating them inside, he was launching rockets from the perimeter.
A day earlier, his no-holds-barred second-half pep talk fired up the Canes for their comeback against Boston College. He called his teammates together in a huddle and scolded them for being too passive. He told them he was the only one talking on the court, that he could hear himself. He implored them to start communicating and lift their game. They listened to their leader, and obeyed.
Said Larkin: “Durand’s one of the best guards in the country, not just the ACC. He’s proven that with the amount of points he has, the steals, rebounds. He’s the leader, heart and soul of the team, definitely.”
“Tonight, Durand was on fire offensively,” said UM coach Jim Larranaga, “but he plays great defense every night. He shares the ball. He leads us on and off the court. In my estimation, this game just symbolizes the kind of player he’s been for four years.”
Scott credited his teammates for getting him open. Scott was 5 of 8 from beyond the arc on Saturday.
“Once I got a couple of baskets, I got confident in myself, especially from the three-point line, I think I missed my first two, but after that I told myself, ‘When I’m open, shoot it.’ That’s what Shane tells me every time, and when I don’t shoot it, he gets upset at me,” he said.
“He’s not the only one!” chimed in Larranaga.
When Scott fouled out of the game with 1:53 to go, he got a standing ovation from the UM family and friends behind the bench and a few hundred UM fans sprinkled throughout the crowd of 22,169. The crowd booed during Hurricane player introductions, and booed even louder as the game clock ran out.
Larkin, who scored 23, said the Canes are not satisfied.
“We’re a hungry team, and we want more and more,” he said. “We’re not satisfied with winning the regular season. We want the ACC title and eventually we want to make it to the national championship game. We’re not going to settle for less and hopefully we can get out there and get it done.”