By now, most of America has seen replays of Ja’Quan Newton’s buzzer-beating, game-clinching 35-foot prayer of a jumper that spoiled Senior Day for the North Carolina Tar Heels on Tuesday. It is Newton’s turn for Senior Day at the Watsco Center on Saturday afternoon, as the University of Miami closes the regular season against Virginia Tech.
Surely, he will get a rousing ovation. Deservedly so.
Newton has overcome a lot to get to this point in his career. His mother, Lisa Brown, to whom he was very close, died March 20, 2014, at 38 after a three-year battle with breast cancer. The day after her death, Newton scored 33 points to lead Neumann-Goretti to the AAA Pennsylvania State High School Championship. He dedicated the win to his mom.
When Newton hit the improbable game-winner at North Carolina Tuesday, he said: “My mom helped” the ball through the net.
UM coach Jim Larrañaga recalled that during Newton’s recruiting visit to campus, Brown said, “I’m not going to be around much longer, so please take care of my son.”
Larrañaga promised he would, which is why he was so patient with Newton when he was suspended twice — three games as a sophomore, three games as a junior — for violating team rules and when he struggled to learn the point guard position. The coach stuck by him, helped him “break bad habits” on and off the court and said Newton has evolved into a mature team leader.
Newton, whose father, Joe, was the 1998 Division II National Player of the Year while at Central Oklahoma, has scored 1,115 points for the Canes.
The other two UM seniors being recognized are also worthy of applause, though they are not as well-known, don’t get air time on ESPN, have played a combined 19 minutes this season and scored a total of three points between them. Mike Robinson (known as “MikeRob”) and Chris Stowell are two of the team’s most respected leaders.
Stowell, a 6-6 forward from Exeter, New Hampshire, was admitted to UM as a Foote Fellow, a highly selective academic scholarship program. He maintained a 4.0 average and will graduate in May with a major in entrepreneurship and a triple minor in business technology, international business and sports administration. He recently accepted a job with Citi as an analyst in the company’s treasury and trade department in New York.
“Chris is probably the smartest student-athlete at the University of Miami,” Larrañaga said. “He’s brilliant. He came in at 6-6 and 185 pounds and lived in the weight room, got so much stronger, became a much better basketball player and whether he ever bounces a ball after college or not, he’s going to be a huge success because he has a fantastic work ethic, great attitude, is a great teammate and leader and one of our captains because of all those qualities.”
Robinson, a 5-10 guard from New Britain, Connecticut, joined the UM team as a freshman manager, and later made the roster as a walk-on after Larrañaga, who noticed Robinson during pickup games, got an email from Geno Auriemma, the legendary University of Connecticut women’s coach.
“Geno Auriemma emailed me — we’ve been friends since we were both assistants at Virginia — and he says, ‘There’s a terrific young man who is going to the University of Miami and would really like to be on the team. I don’t know if you take walk-ons, but if you do, the kid’s a pretty good player and a very good student and a good kid and a very hard worker. You should consider him.’ ”
Auriemma, it turns out, has known Robinson since he was 5 years old because Robinson’s brother played on an AAU team that Auriemma coached. Also, Robinson’s high school coach is married to Auriemma’s daughter, so Auriemma attended many of Robinson’s games.
“MikeRob is a very good athlete, very smart young man, plays very good defense, especially on the ball and he can make open shots,” Larrañaga said. “He’s also a Dean’s List-caliber student and very popular among his teammates.”
Robinson is best known as the guy with the creative handshakes at the end of the introduction line before games. He started doing them during his sophomore year and has turned them into an art form.
For three-point specialist DJ Vasiljevic, Robinson’s handshake ends with three fingers elevated. Dewan Huell likes to be called “King Dewan,” so Robinson places an imaginary crown on Huell’s head at the end of the handshake. Anthony Lawrence loves to dance, so his handshake involves dance moves.
Newton’s is a simple jumping handshake. For Lonnie Walker IV, Robinson does a fake jump and then a handshake. Chris Lykes’ handshake includes a prayer up to God. And Ebuka Izundu’s is a tribute to the movie “Black Panther.”
“My role is to help with team spirit and get guys ready for games,” Robinson said. “In practice, I have no friends on the court. I go all out. I have to prepare these guys for the pressure they’re going to face. Most of the guys get mad at me when I do stuff and they’re lazy, but that’s my job.”
Robinson and Stowell are roommates on the road. Robinson said Stowell serves as a role model through his work ethic and devotion to academics.
“I don’t play that much, but Coach L told me I have to be a leader in all other aspects of college life — from being on time to doing schoolwork to working hard at practice,” Stowell said. “I think I have set a good example.”
Larrañaga agrees: “I tell the guys all the time, ‘You all want to be professional basketball players, but if I were you, I’d get to know Chris Stowell, because he’s going to be an entrepreneur, very wealthy and maybe one day you’ll be lucky if he hires you.’ ”
UM men vs. Virginia Tech
▪ When: Saturday, noon.
▪ Where: Watsco Center, UM campus.
▪ Records: UM (21-8, 10-7 ACC), Virginia Tech (21-9, 10-7).
▪ TV/Radio: ESPN2, WQAM 560.