University of Miami

UM basketball survives late spurt by FSU for key victory

UM guard Angel Rodriguez drives past FSU forward Phil Cofer for a layup in the first half at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015.
UM guard Angel Rodriguez drives past FSU forward Phil Cofer for a layup in the first half at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. el Nuevo Herald

The University of Miami basketball roster said Angel Rodriguez weighed 180 pounds at the start of Wednesday night’s home game against Florida State. Surely, he weighed less midway through the first half, as the emotional point guard, mired in an 11-game shooting slump, found his shot and seemingly shed the weight of the world with every basket he made.

Rodriguez wound up with a team-high 25 points and the Hurricanes staved off a remarkable 26 straight second-half points from FSU freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes to escape with a much-needed 81-77 win over their in-state rival.

The last time Rodriguez scored that many was when he had 24 against Duke on Jan. 13. Since then, he had gone 22 of 103 (21.4 percent) and was coming off a 1-for-12 game at Louisville. A 20-minute phone conversation Monday with renowned sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella got Rodriguez out of his funk, he said.

Rotella has been a close friend of UM coach Jim Larrañaga’s since the late 1970s, and Larrañaga and his assistant Chris Caputo strongly urged Rodriguez to speak with him. They reached him in Lexington, Ky, where he was working with the University of Kentucky team.

“He was trying to make me think positive, giving me reminders of how things used to be with me, early in the season, when I was playing more for fun before the expectations got higher,” Rodriguez said. “He told me to have fun, it’s just a basketball game.

“We said a lot of things that are basic, but things I just wasn’t thinking about, and it worked. The coaches have been telling me to do that, but I’m hard-headed. I’m like, ‘No I got it.’ I listened to them, called him, and look what happened. That’s all it took.”

Larrañaga called Rotella “a miracle worker when it comes to getting people to think correctly.” The coach said he had encouraged Rodriguez to speak to Rotella for quite some time, “but most kids think it’s like voodoo, and it’s not. It’s just thinking.”

As soon as Rodriguez got off the phone, he turned to Larrañaga and Caputo and said: “I’m good.”

Miami bettered its record to 18-10 overall and 8-7 in the ACC. The Canes were in ninth place in the conference standings heading into the game, scratching and clawing to try and earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with three regular-season games remaining.

But FSU – well, really Rathan-Mayes – nearly spoiled the night for the Hurricanes. Miami led by 18 points with 4:38 to go when Rathan-Mayes went on one of the most memorable scoring streaks in recent memory. The Canadian kid nailed six of six three-point attempts, eight of eight field goals and scored 26 consecutive points, including an off-balance three-pointer on which he was fouled, resulting in a four-point play that cut Miami’s lead to 73-69 with under a minute to go.

As if that wasn’t enough to give UM fans belly aches, with 10 seconds to go, Rodriguez was called for a foul on Rathan-Mayes while he was shooting at three. The Seminole guard made all three free throws to shrink UM’s lead to 78-76.

Rathan-Mayes scored 30 points in the final 4:38 and finished with 35 points – fifth-most by a freshman in ACC history. He also scored 35 against North Carolina earlier this season.

“That was outrageous,” Larrañaga said of Rathan-Mayes’ performance. “It was one of the greatest on-court performances I’ve ever seen. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my coaching career.”

UM’s Davon Reed added: “I haven’t seen that before, and we probably won’t see that again for a long time.”

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton wasn’t quite as enthused.

“I wish I could be excited about the heroic comeback, but we didn’t defend and we lost the game,” Hamilton said. “Tremendous effort on his part, it was entertaining, and I’m really happy he has the ability to do that, but as a team, we’re not going to win many games if we have to have a guy go off for 30 points in the last five minutes for us to be successful.”

Rodriguez and UM center Tonye Jekiri made critical free throws in the final minute to seal the win.

Sheldon McClellan scored 19 for the Hurricanes, and Reed knocked in 18. Jekiri had 12 points and 11 rebounds.

FSU fell to 15-14 overall and 7-9 in the ACC.

Maybe it was the 9 p.m. start, or maybe Miami fans just don’t get as excited about the FSU rivalry as they used to, but whatever the reason, the crowd was not as big as it has been in past games against the Seminoles. Still, there was plenty of electricity in the building, a nice showing by the UM students, and the home fans went wild as UM built its 18-point lead.

They got very nervous during the furious final five minutes of the game, but erupted in cheers and mock FSU tomahawk chops at the final buzzer.

FSU boasts the third-tallest roster in the nation, including three seven-footers – 7-0 and 240-pound Kiel Turpin, 7-1 and 292-pound Michael Ojo of Nigeria and 7-3 and 240-pound Boris Bojanovsky of Slovakia.

But it was the Hurricanes’ big man, Jekiri, who had a bigger impact on this night.

Jekiri is the leading rebounder in the ACC with 10.6 per game and 15-plus in four of the past five games. And he showed his athleticism against the Seminoles, with rare back-to-the-basket plays, a thunderous dunk and several pretty passes.

Rathan-Mayes certainly will be remembered for his solo second-half performance, but the UM team will remember it as the night Rodriguez got his shot back and the Hurricanes got back in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Canes are back home Saturday against North Carolina.

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