The University of Miami men’s basketball team is on the brink of an NIT title, but the Hurricanes learned late Tuesday that they will have to do it without their starting center.
The Canes, who have had to get past the loss of second-leading scorer Angel Rodriguez (wrist) and came back from an 18-point deficit against Richmond in the quarterfinal just to get to Madison Square Garden, can add dealing with Tonye Jekiri making an early exit in Tuesday’s semifinal against Temple to their list of obstacles to overcome.
But with that resiliency, comes the reality that he will not be available in Thursday’s championship game after sustaining a concussion.
Jekiri left 6:09 into the 60-57 UM victory when an opposing player bumped his head against Jekiri’s nose/lip as he turned around to get back on defense off a made basket.
“Tonye got a huge lip and bloody nose,” said Miami coach Jim Larrañaga, the Bronx native who made his head-coaching debut in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
Jekiri, who averaged 8.7 points and 10.1 rebounds this season, was walked into the locker room after being helped up from near the UM bench holding his nose. After the game, Larrañaga confirmed Jekiri left with a concussion, which automatically rules him out for Thursday.
For Miami, it’s just another hurdle to leap en route to potentially winning the most esteemed prize a team not invited to the NCAA Tournament can achieve.
“We’ve been like a M.A.S.H. unit,” said Larrañaga, whose team was also dealing with injuries to guards Manu Lecomte (knee) and Ja’Quan Newton (thumb) — who both played through it Tuesday.
Earlier this season, Jekiri was named to the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association All-ACC Defensive Team. He led the ACC in rebounds in conference play with 10.9 per game.
The 7-foot center from Nigeria, who played high school ball at Hialeah Champagnat Catholic, also led the team with 51 blocks — next highest on the team was forward Omar Sherman with 16.
It took a collective effort to replace Jekiri’s defensive presence.
Sherman was subbed in for Jekiri when he initially left and played tough defense for 17 minutes off the bench, adding six consecutive points in a key second-half stretch, pulling down three rebounds and blocking a shot.
“[Tonye] is not only our leading rebounder, but he’s our defensive presence inside around the rim,” Larrañaga said. “We needed Ivan Cruz Uceda and Omar to kind of take up that slack.”
Cruz Uceda also scored six points and grabbed four rebounds while helping immensely on defense, but before it got to the second unit, the perimeter defenders prevented penetration from Temple guards.
“Once Tonye went down, Coach said, ‘We need to do this for Tonye,’ ” guard Davon Reed said. “Everybody dug deep, did what they could do, rebounded the ball and defended extremely well.”
Even without Jekiri handling the paint, the Hurricanes held the Owls to 30.2 percent shooting, including 10.5 percent from three-point range.
“They were very active. They were up on ball screens,” said Temple leading scorer Will Cummings, who was held to 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting. “Credit to those guys. They did a great job on defense.”
That kind of defensive intensity from Jekiri’s teammates will have to prove sustainable on Thursday night against the winner between Stanford and Old Dominion if UM is to cut down the nets at the Garden.