The student section at BankUnited Center, often half-empty, was jam-packed with students in orange Santa hats an hour before tipoff Tuesday night. ESPN2 cameras were in the building. And there were lines at the ticket windows.
This was not an ordinary early-December men’s basketball game at the University of Miami.
The undefeated 15th-ranked Hurricanes were playing the undefeated 24th-ranked Illini of the University of Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
No UM team has ever been ranked that high this early in the season. The Canes had already knocked off then-No. 7 Florida on the road, and this was another chance to make a statement on national television.
Miami kept its unbeaten streak alive with a 70-61 win over the Illini. The Hurricanes improved to 8-0. In the closing moments, many of the 6,086 fans in attendance were chanting “A-C-C!’’ and “La-rra-ña-ga!’’
“We took a big step forward,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said. “This was a very positive step for us to play another Top 25 team and get a W. That ends up giving us confidence when you play other Top 25-type teams.''
Redshirt freshman Deandre Burnett, a Carol City High grad who spent last season injured, led the Canes with 19 points.
Manu Lecomte added 15. Sheldon McClellan had 14 points and nine rebounds. Point guard Angel Rodriguez finished with nine points. Tonye Jekiri, the Canes 7-foot center, dominated the paint at key moments and finished with nine rebounds.
Rayvonte Rice led Illini with 22 points and 12 rebounds.
A pair of early threes by McClellan and Lecomte gave the Hurricanes a lead they never lost. And 12 first-half points by Burnett helped stretch the Miami advantage to 37-24 at halftime.
Coaches had challenged the Canes to clamp down on defense after allowing 54 second-half points in the previous game against South Alabama. They heard the message loud and clear.
The Illini entered the game averaging 90 points per game, tied for fifth-best in the nation. UM held them to 24 first-half points on 25 percent shooting. The Canes also dominated on the defensive boards, 22-14.
The Illini came out strong after intermission, opening the second half with a 10-0 run to close the gap to 37-34. UM coaches called a timeout, and settled the team down. Miami scored nine of the next 11 points, including a driving layup and three-pointer by Burnett to put the Canes up by 10 with 13 minutes to go.
But that lead evaporated in a hurry. Illinois scored five straight points to close the gap to two. Then, the Hurricanes took over and energized the building with a huge three-pointer from freshman Omar Sherman, followed by back-to-back dunks from McClellan and Jekiri to put UM up 55-46 with under eight minutes to go.
Rodriguez made a clutch three to make it 60-48, and Lecomte added another from long range to open it to 63-53 with five minutes to go. The Hurricanes hit most of their free throws down the stretch to preserve the win.
Rodriguez knew the Canes were in for a tough battle.
“It’s huge,’’ he said before the game. “I see them as the same as us — underdogs trying to prove themselves. They’re trying to make a name for themselves just like we are. It’s going to be a battle for us, and a chess match for the coaches.’’
But he said they still have more to prove.
“Yes, we have done something, but because it’s still early. Everything we’ve accomplished so far can go downhill if we don’t continue to do what we’ve been doing. Anything can happen. Can’t get ahead of ourselves.