Tonye Jekiri’s teammates had been telling him for a while that the next time he got open for a three-point shot to let it rip.
The Hurricanes’ 7-foot center finally did on Saturday.
Wide open as can be, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s leading rebounder fired a straightaway three from the top of the key with a little more than eight minutes to go in a tight, second-round NIT game against Alabama. And he got a very, very friendly compilation of bounces.
Jekiri’s first three-point shot and make in college turned a two-point lead into five and spurred a 19-3 run, as the Angel Rodriguez-less Miami Hurricanes rallied past the Crimson Tide 73-66 in front of 1,979 fans at the BankUnited Center.
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Sophomore Manu Lecomte, starting in place of the injured Rodriguez at point guard, scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half as the Canes (23-12) rallied from seven points down to advance to the third round of the NIT for only the third time in school history.
“As coach said, it’s a lose-or-go-home situation, and we don’t want to lose,” said Jekiri, who paced UM with nine points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. “We were having fun with each other today. Our bench was great. We cheered on each other even if we miss a shot or take a bad shot. That excitement and everything keeps us going. We really want to play [in Madison Square Garden].”
UM can get there by winning on Tuesday night. The Canes will either play at top-seeded Richmond (20-13) or at home against fifth-seeded Arizona State (18-15). The Spiders host the Sun Devils on Sunday night.
Coach Jim Larrañaga said he has no idea if Rodriguez, UM’s second-leading scorer, will be back by then. Hampered by a right wrist injury late in the season, Rodriguez came back and played in UM’s loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament and played nine minutes in the opening NIT win over North Carolina Central last Tuesday. But he was in street clothes and on the UM bench for Saturday’s game.
“The last two days he didn’t want to touch the ball because his right hand was so sore,” Larrañaga said. “He’s hurt. It’s sad. But it’s college basketball. A lot of guys get hurt.”
Lecomte proved to be more than capable of filling Rodriguez’s shoes on Saturday. Motivated by a head-to-head matchup with fellow Belgian native Retin Obasohan, Lecomte was handed the keys to Miami’s offense in the second half and didn’t disappoint.
Obasohan, whom Lecomte said inspired him to come play college basketball in America, had 11 points at the break to Lecomte’s two. But Lecomte flipped the script in the second half and outscored him 15-0. Obasohan fouled out with 5:37 to go.
“He’s like a brother to me, and now playing against him I’m like, ‘OK, I want to show him what I can do,’” Lecomte said. “I thought he played really well in the first half, very aggressive. He ran the team very well. My shots weren’t going in the first half. I said I can’t think about it. I have to keep my head up. I knew I was going to make it a good half. I just have to be aggressive.”
Said Larrañaga: “The second half, we changed the offense, gave Manu the ball and said play. He made great decisions, and other guys made critical shots.”
Freshman Deandre Burnett was among those. He had 13 points off the bench, including the second of back-to-back three-pointers with 10:30 remaining to give UM a 48-47 lead it would not relinquish. Davon Reed chipped in 15 points and eight rebounds.
Canes’ leading scorer Sheldon McClellan attempted just two shots in the first half and was held to a season-low two points for the game.
The Hurricanes’ bench came out on fire early, scoring 12 of the team’s first 27 points as UM built a nine-point lead on James Palmer’s reverse layup with 6:16 left in the first half. But that was the last basket the Canes had before the break.
Alabama (19-15) took advantage of nine UM turnovers and closed the half on a 16-3 run to take a 34-30 lead into the break. But the Canes held the Tide to 31 percent shooting in the second half.
Larrañaga, disappointed his team lost five home games this season, was encouraged by the crowd on Saturday and the way his players cheered each other on. Making home feel like home has been a point of emphasis for him this postseason.
“I thought the environment in the game was outstanding,” he said.
“I expected my wife, a couple of my coaches’ children, and that would be it. I thought the fans really turned out and were very supportive. That was very important. I told our players I don’t care how large the crowd is, we need to cheer each other on. And we did.”