University of Miami

Sellout crowd watches UM men’s basketball team trip Gators 66-55

UM guard Ja’Quan Newton (0) drives against Florida Gators forward Justin Leon (24) at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015.
UM guard Ja’Quan Newton (0) drives against Florida Gators forward Justin Leon (24) at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015.

Even before a sellout crowd of 7,972 packed the BankUnited Center Tuesday night, before new football coach Mark Richt energized the crowd with his mid-court “I’m so thankful to be back home’’ speech, there were clues the game between the 17th-ranked University of Miami and rival University of Florida was no ordinary December non-conference matchup.

For one thing, tailgaters were spotted in the MetroRail parking lot. Also, the student section was completely full before tipoff. Lured by the red-hot Hurricanes (and free T-shirts and potential face time on ESPN2), the students were ready to rock.

The Canes gave the crowd plenty to be excited about. They led all but 13 seconds and knocked off the Gators 66-55 – the second time in a year they beat their in-state rivals.

With 1:52 to go and UM up 60-47, Miami fans chanted: “Go home Gators!’’

The players stopped to salute the student section on their way off the floor.

After the game in the locker room, Coach Jim Larranaga was recorded getting loose, hitting The Whip and Nae-Nae dance as his players joined in and laughed.

The Hurricanes improved to 8-1. The UM women’s team is 10-0 and ranked No. 22 in the nation. Dare we say UM is becoming a basketball school? It sure felt that way Tuesday night. Well, at least until Spring Football practice, anyway.

A year ago at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Miami used an 18-1 run and spectacular perimeter shooting from Angel Rodriguez to upset then-No. 8 UF. Rodriguez scored 24 points in that game, hitting five three-pointers in the final seven minutes.

Tuesday night, it was UM guard Sheldon McClellan with 24 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Rodriguez, fiery and gutsy as always, added 17 and three steals. Rodriguez lost his cool a few minutes before halftime, frustrated that freshman center Ebuka Izundu bungled his pass under the basket. Rather than run back on defense, Rodriguez quit on the play, and the guy he should have guarded scored an easy layup.

Larranaga gave Rodriguez and earful, and Rodriguez apologized to his coach and Izundu.

“That Latin blood of his took over, and I know all about that, having been like that myself as a player, but Angel calmed down, and we went on an 8-0 run to finish the half,’’ Larranaga said.

“We were all very amped up for this game,’’ Rodriguez said. “It was a rivalry game, and given the fact that last year we went to their house looking for that big win to get us going, we knew they were going to do the same thing here. We’re ranked in the top 20 and they’re trying to get a quality win, and get us back.’’

Going into the game, UF (6-2) was ranked fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, and was outrebounding opponents by nearly 10 per game. Tuesday, Miami outrebounded Florida 42-31. UM center Tonye Jekiri, who left the game for a while after injuring a knee, had nine rebounds and nine points. Davon Reed opened the game with a block, setting the tone. UM had six blocks on the night.

“I was really impressed with Miami defensively,’’ said UF coach Mike White. “ We knew what their offensive numbers were, which were really, really impressive. But they were equally impressive defensively.

“Miami, in the opening minutes, was the aggressor with their physicality. With them on the offensive glass, defending their glass, getting loose balls, it’s something we’ve prided ourselves on and Miami was better in those categories from the tip.’’

White said UM could be one of the better teams in the nation.

“I’ve got to think they’re one of the better teams out there. I just don’t know what their glaring weakness is. They’ve got length. I was impressed with their girth. There’s some big guys. Really impressed with their physicality, defensively. They play hard. They can spread you. Backcourt really good. Jekiri I was impressed with his ability to alter and block shot. They can make threes. They’re good at a lot of things.”

Michelle Kaufman: 305-376-3438, @kaufsports

Related stories from Miami Herald