The fate of the University of Miami men’s basketball team will be decided 550 miles from here, in a conference room at the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis, where the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has convened to sift through resumes and unveil the 68-team tournament bracket on Sunday.
Everything the committee does is confidential, but it is hardly a secret that the Hurricanes badly needed a win over 11th-ranked Notre Dame Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament to be deemed worthy of an invitation.
They didn’t get it, despite an electrifying second-half comeback, and will head home after a 70-63 loss.
They may have to settle for the NIT with a 21-12 record, but if the committee gives bonus points for guts and drama, Miami has a chance.
The Irish, in highlighter-green sneakers, shined bright early, took a 20-point first-half lead, and had to withstand a furious UM rally before deflating the Hurricanes’ bubble.
Miami went on a 19-2 run after intermission, and the Irish watched their 18-point halftime lead evaporate to one point. A minute later, Ivan Cruz Uceda hit a three from atop the key to tie the game 47-47, and with 6:30 remaining, Sheldon McClellan hit a pair of free throws to give Miami its first lead 51-49.
“We put ourselves in a position where you either get embarrassed or you react to it and give yourself a chance to win a game, and that’s what we did,’’ said UM point guard Angel Rodriguez, who led the Canes with 15 points despite a sore right wrist.
“I’m proud of our guys. Even though we came up short, we battled as a team and that’s something I could never be disappointed about…We never quit, never hung our heads, never said, `The game is over.’’’
McClellan added: “We showed heart. We showed character. We never laid down.’’
At halftime, Miami coach Jim Larranaga reminded his team they had been in similar holes before, at Florida and against Virginia, and both times had great second-half comebacks. He told players not to look at the score.
UM coaches also switched to a matchup zone in the second half, which proved a wise move. The Irish unraveled until the closing minutes.
“I think Notre Dame deserves an awful lot of credit,’’ Larranaga said. “They played an outstanding first half. I didn’t think they were ever going to miss. We ended up playing zone, and we haven’t zoned, I think, since Kennedy was president. Our players responded to it very well. It would have been very disappointing to lose by 15 or 20, so I’m proud of our second-half effort.’’
With five minutes left to play, the Canes had held the Irish to 11 second-half points. The Irish managed to hang on with some big plays by Steve Vasturia, one of five Irish players in double figures with 16 points.
“Steve was on an IV this afternoon, he was sick as a dog,’’ said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “To do what he did, make big shots and big plays and guard McClellan most of the night, fabulous.’’
The last time they played, at South Bend on Jan. 17, the Hurricanes led by 12 by 15 minutes to go, but wound up losing 75-70.
Thursday night, it was a different story line. The Canes struggled to find their shot in the first half, missing eight of their first 10 to fall behind 17-4. A trio of threes from Notre Dame senior Pat Connaughton put the Irish up by 17, and he hit another two minutes later to open the gap to 19.
Eight minutes in, the Irish were shooting 73 percent (11-of-15) while Miami was 6-of-16. At halftime, UM was 1-of-10 from three-point range and Notre Dame was 8-of-13.
Connaughton finished with 14 points, Jerian Grant had 13, and Demetrius Jackson had 12. Jekiri had 11 points and 11 rebounds for the Canes. McClellan and Uceda had 10, and Deandre Burnett added nine.
Rodriguez said before the game: “It’s going to be fun out there, and we’re going to bring it.’’
Yes, they did, much to the delight of the smattering of Hurricanes fans at the Greensboro Coliseum. One of the most passionate was B.J. Abolt, a retired auto tag agency owner who made her annual pilgrimage with a friend from LaBelle, Fla., near Fort Myers.
They drove up in a motor coach for the women’s tournament and stayed for the men’s. Her brother and sister-in-law went to UM, and she adopted their team. The license tag on her car back home is “CANES,’’ and the tag on her motor coach and Jeep is “2 4 U.’’
“I grew up in Indiana with a basketball in my hand,’’ said Abolt. “I’m a big football fan, but now we have such terrific coaches that we’re involved with the basketball programs and it’s fun. This team, if they’re on, they can beat anybody here.’’
But on this night, they came up short. Let the NCAA Tournament debate begin.