Things are about to get a lot more difficult for the University of Miami men’s basketball team, but the first night of the season was a breeze for the new-look Hurricanes. They led start to finish in an 84-49 win over Howard University at the BankUnited Center.
Surely, it won’t be that easy on Monday, when the Hurricanes travel to Gainesville for a game against the seventh-ranked Florida Gators. But the UM players head north with confidence, and the knowledge that they have plenty of scoring options. Nine of the 11 players scored, including sophomore walk-on Mike Fernandez, a Belen High grad, who got a big cheer when he hit a long jumper in the closing minutes.
Transfers Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez were the go-to guys, as expected. McClellan, who came to Miami from the University of Texas, was the leading scorer with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
Rodriguez is a Miami Krop High grad who spent two seasons at Kansas State, but decided to come back to more familiar surroundings.
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Rodriguez became an instant leader in the locker room and media favorite, and looked perfectly at home on the court Friday with 16 points, four steals and three assists, including a crowd-pleasing alley-oop to McClellan.
“You will be seeing a lot of that,’’ Rodriguez said, smiling. “We have good chemistry. He can jump high. So if you get it up there to him, he’s going to score.’’
Sophomore guard Manu Lecomte scored the first points of the season on a floater, and the Canes coasted from there. They took a 17-1 lead and held the Bison to 0-for-13 shooting in the first 10 minutes. They led by as many as 28 points and were comfortably ahead 45-21 at halftime.
“We came in with a great mind-set from the get-go,’’ Rodriguez said. “We punched first, kept punching, and it was a great team win. I told the guys in the huddle before the game, ‘Teams like that you can’t give them any hope. They’re trying to prove themselves, so they bring their best game. You can’t start flat.’’’
UM coach Jim Larrañaga was “very, very happy’’ with the way his team started.
“To get ahead 17-1 was very much a surprise, a very pleasant surprise,’’ he said. “We kept inching ahead into the 20s, eventually into the 30s.’’
Seven-foot center Tonye Jekiri missed the exhibition game with an injury, and has been challenged by coaches all preseason to pick up his game. He is the tallest man on the UM team. He is also the most experienced, the only player left from the Canes’ Sweet 16 run in 2013.
On Friday, he grabbed nine first-half rebounds and finished with 11 rebounds and six points.
The UM defense swarmed Howard’s top player, James “J-Byrd’’ Daniel, the MEAC Preseason Player of the Year, who averaged 21 points per game last season. They held him to 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting, and he was scoreless in the second half.
“You could tell they were geared to stop him,’’ said Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry. “Every three he took, they were right there. I played against Jim [Larrañaga] a lot when I was at Hampton, and his teams are always gritty and well-coached. He’s done a great job making these guys gel. He finds a way.’’