Barely over the sting of their season-ending loss at Virginia Tech last Sunday, the 11th-ranked University of Miami Hurricanes were forced to play the resurgent Hokies again late Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
Virginia Tech, a conference afterthought in January, was brimming with confidence after winning six games in a row, and the Hokies’ fans at the Verizon Center were more numerous and vocal than the Miami contingent.
But the Canes were the ones celebrating after putting away the Hokies 88-82 just before midnight to advance to Friday’s 9 p.m. semifinal against No. 2 seed Virginia.
The Cavaliers rolled over Georgia Tech 72-52 in the earlier quarterfinal.
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The Canes led the Hokies by just one at the half, and then Angel Rodriguez, the smallest player on the court, lifted the team on his shoulders. The spunky senior guard sparked UM on a 15-2 run early in the second half with a trio of threes, a steal and a layup. He finished with 19 points, nine assists, two turnovers, and three steals.
Sheldon McClellan led Miami with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Davon Reed added 17, Tonye Jekiri had 11 and Ja’Quan Newton, back after a three-game suspension, had 10. Sean Allen came off the bench to lead Virginia Tech with 31 points, 17 of them from the free throw line.
“Angel and Sheldon were tremendous,” said UM coach Jim Larrañaga. “Fun to coach. Fun kids to be around. They come with tremendous effort, energy and execution.”
Between then, the two senior guards scored 31 points in the second half.
Rodriguez got two quick fouls early, and played only 11 minutes in the first half. So, when the second half started, he was especially motivated.
“I was frustrated getting those early fouls, and I was thinking, `This could be my last ACC game,’ so I was just excited to be out there,” Rodriguez said. “My coaches and teammates have tremendous trust in me, and [Virginia Tech] left me open, so I’m going to take those shots.”
The Hurricanes looked loose in the tunnel before the game; shot 62 percent well into the first half, and opened up a 10-point lead. Virginia Tech chipped away and headed into halftime with an 11-2 run that closed the deficit to 33-32.
But the second half belonged to Miami. The Canes shot 57 percent on the night, had 18 assists and 11 steals.
Miami (25-6) secured its third 25-win season in the past four years under Larrañaga.
Jekiri, who hadn’t fouled out of a game all season, went to the bench with 5:10 to go in the game after drawing a technical foul for protesting a call. Miami led 70-58. He watched, dejectedly, with a towel draped over his back, as the Hokies made four free throws in a row to close to within eight as the Hokies fans went berserk.
“I felt so disappointed in myself that I let my emotions take over,” Jekiri said. “I knew I had done something stupid. As a veteran I shouldn’t have done that and I felt really bad, like I let my team down. My assistant coaches hugged me, and I had to put my head up.”
He explained the foul: “I was frustrated because two Virginia Tech guys were fighting for the ball, the ball came loose, and everybody could go for it. I went for it, it was a quick whistle and I couldn’t believe it.”
He said he was “very relieved” that the Hurricanes hung on for the win.
Nevertheless, Larrañaga was extremely upset that his player were called for 22 personal fouls and sent the Hokies to the line 31 times. He said the team will run wind sprints Friday morning as a punishment.
Ten years ago, on the very same court, Larrañaga’s George Mason team shocked the nation by clinching a Final Four spot with an overtime upset of top-seeded Connecticut. The Patriots were a No. 11 seed, and became the inspiration for every mid-major team that previously believed the Big Dance was reserved for the sport’s traditional powers.
Larrañaga had the Hurricanes practice on the George Mason campus early this week, and told them tales about that Patriots team, lessons he hoped would remind them that anything is possible in March when a team is in the right frame of mind.
The Hokies had ended the UM regular season on a sour note, beating the Hurricanes 77-62 and dropping them to the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament. Miami allowed Virginia Tech 52.9 percent shooting that night after holding the Hokies to 29.6 percent in a 65-49 victory at the BankUnited Center in February.
It was a different story Thursday night.
Earlier Thursday, fourth seed Notre Dame rallied from 16 points down to beat fifth-seeded Duke 84-79 in overtime. The Fighting Irish face No. 1 seed North Carolina Friday at 7 p.m. in the other semifinal. The Tar Heels beat Pitt in the quarterfinals.