Things were looking so bleak for the Pacific Tigers at halftime of their NCAA Tournament opener against the University of Miami on Friday that coach Bob Thomason considered making a phone call from the locker room.
“At halftime, I thought about calling the charter company and saying, ‘We’ll be there [at 6:30],’ ” he joked after his overmatched 15th-seeded team got knocked out 78-49 by the second-seeded Hurricanes. The Tigers trailed 40-19 at halftime, and it was clear retiring Thomason was coaching the final game of his career.
“Miami’s just a lot better than us,” Thomason said. “I’m glad it’s not a 4-out-of-7 series, to tell you the truth.”
The Canes, returning to the tournament for the first time in five years, justified their high seed and improved their record to 28-6 — four more wins than they have ever had in school history. They advanced to Sunday’s Round of 32. They play No. 7 seed Illinois, which beat No. 10 seed Colorado 57-49 in the Friday afternoon game.
Senior guard Durand Scott led UM with 21 points and had five three-pointers. Sophomore guard Shane Larkin had 10 points, tied a career-high nine assists, and lived up to his “Sugar Shane” nickname with smart silky moves that elevated the play of his teammates.
The bench scored 28 points. Rion Brown had nine points, and senior center Reggie Johnson, who had been in a slump, showed signs of his old self with seven points and 10 rebounds. Seven-foot freshman Tonye Jekiri had a season-high six points, five rebounds and two blocks in 16 minutes. Erik Swoope had six points in six minutes.
“Great team, great pieces, they played tremendous … I’ll be rooting for them the rest of the time,” Thomason said. “Maybe they can win a national championship. If I had to go out in coaching, you want to go out to a great team, but also to a great coach and a class coach, and Jim [Larrañaga] is that.”
Going into this tournament, the No.2 seed had beaten the No. 15 in 106 of 112 matchups. Last year, two No. 2 seeds — Duke and Missouri — were knocked out in their opening games. It was clear early Friday there was no danger of that happening.
The Hurricanes were first on the court for warm-ups, wearing neon orange and yellow sneakers. They ran through the tunnel for pre-game introductions all pumped up, wearing their green hoods, looking like 13 prize fighters.
“We came out with so much confidence because we really believe in our style of play, and we’ve played against big-time teams,” Jekiri said. “Before we left the locker room, Coach told us to go out and enjoy the moment. He said there’s no small teams in this tournament, so we should go out and play with the same intensity as we did against Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina.”
Said Swoope: “That was fantastic. Our goal is to have more fun than anyone else, and we started off right. We were intense, but we have no reason to feel pressure. Yes, we’ve done enough that people recognize us, but that doesn’t mean we have to put any extra pressure. Success will come from hard work.”
Pacific scored first, but Miami locked down on defense, and quickly had the Tigers (22-13) on the ropes. It was not the retirement send-off Pacific players had hoped for their coach, who is leaving the school after 25 years.
The game was close for the first five minutes. Pacific trailed 8-7, and its fans, decked in orange and black Tiger stripes, surely were starting to dream of a major upset.
That’s when Larkin decided to “give us a spark.” He made a pair of free throws, got a steal and lobbed a perfect alley-oop pass for Jekiri to dunk.
He followed up the circus move with a three-point play, and all of a sudden, Miami was ahead 15-7. It kicked off a 14-0 UM run that set the tone for the rest of the game.
Pacific missed 19 of its first 22 shots, including all seven three-point attempts, and the Canes had opened up a 22-7 lead seven minutes before halftime.
Larrañaga gave Larkin the green light to call most of the Hurricanes’ plays, and the sophomore didn’t disappoint.
“Since the very first day I saw Shane Larkin play, I thought he was great,” Larrañaga said. “And he’s only gotten better at making decisions, at developing his skills, developing his role as a leader. So, [Friday] I may have called one or two offensive plays, but I said to him, ‘You run your team, and you make the decisions out there.’ He was the one that called the plays the whole game long. When you have a player of his skill level and basketball IQ, it’s very, very easy to have confidence and trust that he’ll do the right thing.”
It was those heady decisions that sank Pacific.
“They’re so big and strong, but the problem is they’re smart,” Thomason said. “They play well together, play smart defense, don’t gamble a lot. They just don’t give you a lot of mistakes, don’t make silly passes. Sometimes, you play teams that do that and it gives you a little more opportunity … but when you have a point guard that’s so quick, so unselfish, but he can shoot and score, that’s a problem right there.”
UM is Illinois’ problem now.