This year, there were no ladders to climb after the final home game of the regular season. No nets to cut. No electric sellout crowd. No orange confetti or Atlantic Coast Conference championship T-shirts.
This season’s University of Miami men’s basketball team is not ranked No. 6 in the nation or entering the conference tournament as the top seed.
But Saturday was a day of celebration, nonetheless, at BankUnited Center. The Hurricanes rolled past Wake Forest 69-56 on Senior Day, and it seemed only fitting that fifth-year graduate student Garrius Adams, a captain, saved his best for last.
He scored a career-high 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds. The team’s other senior captain, Rion Brown, had 19 points and Erik Swoope added 10.
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The win meant the Canes finish the season with a winning record — 16-15 — even though their league record was 7-11. It was their third win in a row at home. More importantly, it ensured the team’s six resilient seniors got to end their final regular season on a high note.
Each of the seniors — Adams, Brown, Raphael Akpejiori, Erik Swoope, Donnavan Kirk and Justin Heller — were recognized before the game and escorted onto the court by family members to receive a framed jersey.
Then came the toughest part of the day for UM coach Jim Larrañaga: Which senior to leave out of the starting lineup.
Lucky for the coach, this gritty collection of former role players is a selfless group, so not one but two players volunteered to come off the bench so he could start Justin Heller, a walk-on who was finally awarded a scholarship his final semester as a reward for his dedication to the program.
Kirk and Akpejiori offered up their spot. Larrañaga started Akpejiori, and Kirk replaced Heller after the first minute. Heller re-entered the game for the final minute after the crowd of 5,811 chanted “We Want Heller!’’
But the best storyline of the day was Adams, a North Carolina native who was recruited by Wake Forest, knew several of their players, and “gets a little boost’’ when he plays teams from his home state. Six years ago, he was rated among the nation’s Top 20 shooting guard recruits coming out of Middle Creek High School.
Adams arrived at UM with high expectations. He played 17 minutes per game as a freshman and averaged 3.8 points. He started 24 games as a sophomore and raised his average to 7.3. Then, in an injury-plagued junior season, he was limited to 19 games and six starts. A serious knee injury caused him to spend his senior year as a medical redshirt.
He was a bit rusty at the start of this season, but wound up starting every game, playing 33 minutes a game, and averaged 4.5 points. Through it all, he was the consummate teammate and never got bitter.
“I’m sure he thinks, ‘Man, if I could have stayed healthy I could have had a lot more games like I had today,’” Larrañaga said. “Here’s a guy who started every game this season. Not just played, but over 30 minutes. He should be very proud of himself to overcome all that adversity.”
Adams said he has been frustrated by his setbacks, and wonders what could have been, but his family and friends remind him to keep things in perspective.
“They tell me to look at the positive, that even though I got injured, I was able to come back from that and some people are not,” he said. “I’m blessed.”
Asked why he thinks he was able to have his best scoring output on Senior Day, Adams smiled and revealed that the key was thinking about absolutely nothing.
“Coach always asks what we’re thinking, and I seem to play my best when I’m thinking nothing, just relaxed,” Adams said. “I was literally thinking nothing, just happy to be out there with my teammates, trying to get the win.”
The Hurricanes head to Greensboro, N.C., for their ACC tournament opener Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. against last-place Virginia Tech, which is 2-15 in the ACC and both wins were over Miami.
Larrañaga hopes Saturday’s win injected his team with confidence.
“It’s nice to be feeling good about yourself” going into the postseason, he said.
And nobody was feeling better Saturday than Adams.”