The air gets thinner at higher altitudes.
It’s more difficult to breathe.
But the University of Miami men’s basketball team, soaring at No. 2 in the nation, overcame symptoms of light-headedness in the final 60 seconds Tuesday to nudge Virginia 54-50.
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UM, which has won its past three games by a total of 12 points, was able to grind its winning streak to 14.
The tension was double thick inside the sold-out BankUnited Center. UM President Donna Shalala was in her customary seat opposite the visitors’ bench, in her customary green garb, outwardly enthused but inwardly steaming. Before the game, she had received the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations. After a two-year investigation with UM booster and convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro at the nexus of possible rules violations, Shalala at last had the list of findings and the football and basketball teams at last had more clarity as to what they are facing because of the misdeeds of their predecessors.
Shalala said many charges remain “unsubstantiated” since they are based on “the word of a man who made a fortune by lying.” Many of the most sensational claims by Shapiro — prostitutes, expensive cars and bounty payments to players — are not in the notice.
But the egregious charge of lack of institutional control — the nuclear bomb of NCAA violations — is in the letter, a source told The Miami Herald.
“We deeply regret any violations, but we have suffered enough,” Shalala said, referring to a probe flawed by an investigator’s unethical behavior.
The team was oblivious to the news transpiring off the court, although just about everybody else saw the multimedia flashes that the long-awaited, long-dreaded letter had arrived.
So the Canes provided an antidote.
Undistracted, as they have been throughout an improbable run to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference and nearly to the pinnacle of college basketball’s rankings, they provided a welcome distraction.
And another thrilling performance.
The score was tied at 46 with 52 seconds to go.
Shane Larkin gave UM a 50-47 pad by making two free throws with 28 seconds left.
But Virginia struck back when Evan Nolte swished a three-pointer to tie it with 14.3 seconds left.
Then Larkin, circling to his right, spied Reggie Johnson under the basket and whipped a pass to him for an open layup. Johnson said it was the same play UM used to do in N.C. State. Defenders followed Larkin and Kenny Kadji and neglected Johnson.
“They left me wide open,” Johnson said. “I was surprised to be wide open.”
Durand Scott killed Virginia’s last-gasp hopes by stealing the in-bounds pass and making both ensuing free throws with four seconds left.
The scoring stats weren’t pretty in this defensive slog — UM made 1 of 7 shots from three-point range — but there were critical rebounds by Johnson and Kadji, six assists from Larkin, three steals by Scott and 10 points from sixth man Rion Brown.
Indiana clung to No. 1 with a narrow victory over Michigan State. UM kept its end of the bargain by improving to 22-3 and 13-0 in the ACC.
Hard to believe that the same gang that lost to Florida Gulf Coast University by eight points on Nov. 13 now owns the highest ranking in the program’s history.
Virginia almost nailed UM with its first loss inside BankUnited Center, which has been the scene of a home-court advantage — a previously alien concept for UM players.
UM coach Jim Larranaga, who has applied a serene outlook to the nagging NCAA investigation that predates him and his staff, said he does not think his team’s success has been tempered.
“We’re getting so much exposure,” he said. “We can only focus on things we can control. We have nothing to do with the investigation. We have a very able-bodied administration to take care of those things.”
In fact, the basketball team is just what UM and its fans need right now. UM hung on to turn a night of bad news into a triumphant one, leaving all observers breathing easier, and sighing not in regret but in wonder.