With three of its final four Atlantic Coast Conference games on the road, the University of Miami men’s basketball team acknowledged the significance of Saturday’s noon home contest against Clemson.
A loss against an opponent below it in the standings would severely damage the Hurricanes’ NCAA hopes.
Playing their second game without suspended starting point guard Ja’Quan Newton, the Hurricanes withstood a pesky effort from the Tigers to pull out a 71-65 victory at Watsco Center.
Kamari Murphy led Miami with a career-high 15 points, as the senior forward shot 7 of 9 from the field. Fellow senior Davon Reed finished with 14 points and sophomore Ebuka Izundu added 12 points for the Hurricanes (18-8, 8-6 ACC).
“You always have to protect home court,” Murphy said. “On the road, myself and Reed have to bring young guys together and keep our composure. Little things help on the road to get you that victory.”
Newton’s suspension because of a violation of team rules has prompted Hurricanes players to expand their roles, not to mention minutes. Murphy and Reed played 35 and 36 minutes, respectively, against Clemson (14-12, 4-10). Sophomore guard Anthony Lawrence missed only three minutes of game action and was Miami’s fourth-double figure scorer with 10 points.
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“We know every game is crucial at this time,” Murphy said. “With guys out, our guys’ motto in the locker room has been to ‘find a way.’ Everybody’s been stepping up. Whoever has to step up we’ll take it and get the win like we did today.”
Murphy, who also finished with nine rebounds, even extended his shooting range in the victory. Although his offensive contributions usually occur around the rim, Murphy scored on three mid-range jumpers against the Tigers.
“I was making a joke after the game that teams have to change their scouting now,” Murphy said. “It’s one of those things where I was just playing my game. Coach said when Ja’Quan went down for those games you don’t want to step out of your role and try to do too much.
“I don’t think that’s out of my game. I’m more than capable to hit the shot. I just showed it. I’m just playing within my role — I’m still rebounding, still playing defense. I just happened to hit a couple of shots today.”
Bruce Brown’s three-pointer with 1:34 remaining increased the Hurricanes’ lead to 67-61. Reed’s two free throws with 40 seconds left gave Miami another six-point lead at 69-63. After Elijah Thomas’ basket with 15 seconds left got Clemson within 69-65, Reed’s two free throws two seconds later secured the Hurricanes’ victory.
“Before the game, we told the team how talented Clemson is offensively,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. “Part of the key for us is being able to hold people under 70. If we can do that and do some good things offensively, then we have a good chance.”
Larrañaga praised the contributions from underclassmen Lawrence and Izundu and freshmen Dewan Huell, D.J. Vasiljevic and Brown, who played through a bout of tonsillitis and fever against Georgia Tech on Wednesday.
“The progress has been simply this — I think our upperclassmen have played good all year,” Larrañaga said. “Our young guys — our freshmen and sophomores — are getting a lot of confidence and a lot of experience.”
Larrañaga will need another similar effort from both groups when the Hurricanes begin the final stretch of conference play Monday at Virginia.
Newton will rejoin the team for Miami’s final home conference game against Duke on Feb. 25.
“We understand we have to play for each other,” Murphy said. “At the beginning of the season we knew we had some glitches. I have faith in my guys that we will get it done.”
Miami and Clemson combined to convert their first 10 shots in a frenetic scoring pace during the game’s opening eight minutes. The Tigers made their first six attempts but struggled offensively in the opening five minutes of the second half, when they missed nine of their first 10 shots.
“In the second half, we didn’t do a good job coming out of the gate and that’s where they got a little bit of separation,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
“We obviously battled back, played better and got it to a possession. But we just couldn’t quite make enough plays defensively or offensively. We didn’t get momentum-type plays in the second half.”