University of Miami

Miami Hurricanes can’t close out Louisville Cardinals as NCAA Tournament hopes fade

Miami Hurricanes point guard Angel Rodriguez, center, attempts a shot between the defense of Louisville's Wayne Blackshear, left, and Chinanu Onuaku during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Louisville, Ky. on Feb. 21, 2015.
Miami Hurricanes point guard Angel Rodriguez, center, attempts a shot between the defense of Louisville's Wayne Blackshear, left, and Chinanu Onuaku during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Louisville, Ky. on Feb. 21, 2015. AP

The University of Miami Hurricanes had a shot at another signature win, but lack of execution in the final minute allowed No. 12 University of Louisville to escape with a 55-53 victory Saturday at KFC Yum! Center.

“The last couple of plays we just were not able to finish it,” Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga said.

He was clearly disappointed — and he had reason to be. The Atlantic Coast Conference game was ripe for the taking and the Hurricanes let it slip through their collective fingers.

Two free throws by Deandre Burnett gave Miami a 53-50 lead with 1:37 left in the second half — and that proved to be the high-water mark for both Burnett and the Hurricanes.

Louisville answered with a jumper by Wayne Blackshear at the 1:18 mark, cutting the Miami lead to one.

On the next two Hurricanes possessions, Burnett turned it over twice — with :55 and :11 left in the game. On the ensuing Cardinals possessions, Montrezl Harrell made three of four free-throw attempts to give Louisville the lead and the final margin.

Down 55-53 with eight seconds remaining, the Hurricanes went to Angel Rodriguez, who missed a three-point attempt.

“I thought it was going in actually,” said Hurricanes guard Sheldon McClellan, who finished with a team high 17 points. “We maybe could have got a better one, but it was a great shot for him, he makes those shots a lot of times.”

The rebound of the missed three-pointer went to Harrell with three seconds left, and Miami lost its fourth game in February — three by a total of just five points.

It was a key game for both teams. The Hurricanes (17-10, 7-7) are on the bubble and in need of a companion piece to the Duke win on Jan. 13. For the Cardinals (21-6, 9-5), losers of three of four in the past two weeks, a loss at home would be further proof of a late-season slip.

With the Cardinals mired in an early-game slump, the Hurricanes brought some Coral Gables heat with them to start the game.

Freshman Omar Sherman got the Hurricanes off and running, scoring Miami’s first seven points. When Tonye Jekiri scored moments later, the Hurricanes were up 9-1 four minutes into the game.

The Miami lead hit double digits at 13-3 on a layup by McClellan at the 14:47 mark of the first half — and the Hurricanes extended to their biggest lead of the game at 19-6 on a three-pointer by McClellan with 12:30 left.

The Hurricanes continued to keep up the pace for much of the first half, leading 25-14 on a dunk by McClellan late in the half, but despite a double-digit lead, the Hurricanes weren’t smiling at the break.

Inside the final two minutes, Harrell grabbed an off-balance offensive rebound and threw the ball into Jekiri’s face. It had been physical inside the entire first half, but this blow sent the 7-foot junior out of the game. A technical was called on Harrell and Jekiri made 1 of 2 free throw attempts to make it 26-14 with 1:49 left, then he was replaced by Joe Thomas.

The Hurricanes led 29-19 at the break.

“At halftime I was told by our trainer that our big guy Tonye Jekiri had sustained a concussion when the ball was thrown at his head,” Larrañaga said.

But the diagnosis was revised and Jekiri came back from the locker room and into the game at the 16:52 mark of the second half. By that time, Louisville’s defense had turned up the pressure and the Cardinals had put together an 11-3 run to trail 32-30.

“We came out and we weren’t very sharp to begin with,” Larrañaga said of the opening minutes. “Once he [Jekiri] got back in there we were able to settle down.”

But it was too late. The Cardinals — and their home crowd of 21,345 — had officially shown up.

As it turns out, Jekiri wasn’t just a big presence on the block, he was a key to breaking the Louisville press. When he returned, the Hurricanes settled and things got interesting.

With the Cardinals up 33-32 at the 14:41 mark, the game was played to a 21-21 tie after Harrell hit two free throws with 35 seconds left in the game.

Jekiri finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds for the Hurricanes. Louisville was led by Harrell (21 points, 14 rebounds) and Chris Jones (17 points).

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