Twenty-four hours after the Heat’s winning streak came to a screeching halt at 27 games, the University of Miami basketball team was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament with a 71-61 loss to Marquette that was not as close as the score indicates.
Talk about a one-two punch.
There was no Muhammad Ali victory shuffle in the Hurricanes’ locker room on this night. No music. None of the laughter that had become so commonplace during this magical season. On this night, there were tears welling up in the eyes of those tall young men, and a whole lot of silence.
“I’ll never forget these guys, never forget this season,” said UM guard Shane Larkin, who spent Wednesday night throwing up, but refused to use that as an excuse. “It’s over just like that. You’re out there enjoying yourself with your teammates and then all of a sudden, you play bad one game and it’s over. No practice tomorrow. No team meeting.
“The seniors will never play another game at the University of Miami, and that hurts because they put in so much hard work. You bond, and become brothers, and it hurts that we couldn’t pull it off, especially for Reggie [Johnson], ’cause he couldn’t be here. We had a great run. We started as a little team — Miami — that nobody knew about. We lost to Florida Gulf Coast and nobody believed in us … then, it became like a rock-star season for us. I’m just sorry we couldn’t keep it going.”
A few days from now, the Hurricanes will probably be able to look back on this historic season and fully appreciate all the milestones — the 14-game win streak, the No.2 ranking, the 27-point win over Duke, the three victories over North Carolina, the first Atlantic Coast Conference championship, the second Sweet 16 in school history.
But on this night, there were just broken hearts and unfulfilled dreams for the Hurricanes and their growing bandwagon of fans, which had reached standing-room-only in recent weeks.
“Marquette played a great game and had a great game plan, but we are a great team, and this game did not define us,” said a red-eyed Kenny Kadji, slumped over at his locker with a towel draped over his head. “It’s sad that it’s over. Sad we didn’t play our best basketball. It is tough for us seniors to know our college careers are over.”
UM sold out its official ticket allotment of 1,250 for Thursday’s game. Among the fans cheering on the Canes were NFL players and UM alumni Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who played for the Hurricanes basketball team before switching to football.
They roared when Hurricanes forward Kadji opened the game with a thunderous dunk. Things went downhill from there in a hurry. Marquette clamped down on Larkin, the Canes’ shooters all went cold, and the Eagles were hitting everything on the other end. Miami missed 11 of 12 three-point attempts in the first half and trailed 29-16 at intermission.
This was the Sweet 16, but there was nothing sweet about those 16 points — the lowest first-half output for UM all season.
“They had same exact game plan as Illinois on the defensive end, trapping me with two people until I gave up the ball, trying to get the ball out of my hands,” Larkin said. “Against Illinois, I was able to get in the paint and make passes to my teammates and they were knocking down the shots. [On Thursday], when I kicked it out, we just weren’t hitting shots, and when they kicked to me, I wasn’t making shots. When you don’t hit shots, you can’t win.”
The Hurricanes never warmed up, the Eagles kept getting points in the paint and opened a 51-30 lead to put the game away.
Nothing went right for UM. The Canes’ 1 1/2-mile bus ride to the arena took 45 minutes because of traffic snarls. Larkin spent the night with an upset stomach. Johnson was home after surgery on his knee. But the main thing is, Marquette did everything right, and Miami struggled in every facet of the game.
“We were trying to find our way and never could,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said. “We never got in rhythm offensively or defensively. When you don’t make shots, you don’t look good, and when the other team makes shots, they look good and build up a lead. We just didn’t look like ourselves on this night.”
For Marquette (26-8), playing in a Sweet 16 was old hat. The Golden Eagles have reached the final 16 the past three years and said they were tired of stopping there.
“We could have easily let the season go downhill, but these guys are so relentless, we never gave up,” Marquette guard Vander Blue said.
After sweating through the first two games of the tournament, the Eagles put the Hurricanes away early and are headed to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003, when they were led by Heat star Dwyane Wade and coached by Tom Crean, now the coach at top-seeded Indiana. The Hoosiers played Syracuse in the late game Thursday night.
The Verizon Center is the site of the greatest triumph in Larrañaga’s career. Seven years ago, his 11th-seeded George Mason team upset top seed Connecticut here to earn a spot in the Final Four. The Canes were hoping some good karma was left in the building.