University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga coached at Bowling Green and led mid-major George Mason to the Final Four 10 years ago, so he knows better than anyone how dangerous a team like Buffalo can be in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, he was not prepared to see the 14th-seeded Bulls open their NCAA Tournament first-round game against the third-seeded Hurricanes with four three-pointers in a row to take an early 12-4 lead.
Buffalo’s perimeter shooting continued late in the game, allowed the Bulls to close a 12-point UM lead to four, but UM kept driving to the basket, hitting free throws, and they got away with a 79-72 victory at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
Miami advances to a 12:10 p.m. Saturday CBS second-round game against Wichita State, which defeated Arizona in a 62-53 upset late Thursday.
Five Hurricanes finished in double figures and two wound up with double-doubles. Angel Rodriguez led Miami with a season-high 24 points. His backcourt partner and good friend Sheldon McClellan was just behind with 20. Kamari Murphy had 11 points and 13 rebounds. Davon Reed had 10 points and 12 rebounds, and Ja’Quan Newton added 10 points.
According to ESPN, it was the second time in Miami history they had five players in double figures in the NCAA Tournament. The other time was the 2002 opening game against Missouri.
Earlier in the day in the same building, 13th-seeded UNC-Wilmington gave No. 4 Duke a mighty scare and 12th seed Yale knocked off fifth-seeded Baylor, setting up a Duke-Yale matchup that surely will have the highest combined GPA of any other second-round game. And out in Denver, another No. 5 seed, Purdue, was tossed by 12th-seed Arkansas-Little Rock. The Hurricanes watched those games on TV and vowed not to be the next victim.
“I experienced one when I was at Kansas State,” Rodriguez said. “We played La Salle, disrespected them, didn’t pay attention to the scouting report. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to this team. We’ve had a great season and have an opportunity to do really big things in March. Anything can happen in the tournament.”
For much of the first half, it looked like Buffalo was on its way to becoming another bracket-buster. The Bulls led 25-20 after 15 minutes on the strength of their outside shooting, while the Hurricanes were struggling from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, UM 7-foot center Tonye Jekiri, the tallest player in the game, picked up two early fouls and spent considerable time on the bench. He had trouble guarding center Nick Perkins, who led the Bulls with 20 points, including four threes.
UM’s fiery 5-11 guard Rodriguez sparked a rally with a ferocious block, and the team’s energy level immediately picked up. Newton got a steal and a layup to tie the game at 25, and then fed Reed for an electric alley-oop to push Miami ahead 27-25, the Canes’ first lead since 2-0.
“In March, you play teams you’ve never seen, not even on TV, so it’s a challenge at first,’’ Rodriguez said. “We kept fighting and fighting and fighting. That play [the block] gave the team a lot of energy. That’s the beauty of this team. We just need one little thing to get us going, and we found it on the defensive end.”
At halftime, despite outshooting the Bulls 43 percent to 30, the Hurricanes clung to a 35-33 lead. Buffalo nearly tied it at the buzzer, but Lamonte Beardon’s layup was a fraction of a second too late.
Miami missed seven of eight three-point attempts in the first half.
“This is the NCAA Tournament; you need to play great; not good, great. We were just OK,’’ Larrañaga said in his halftime TV interview.
The coach later explained that the Canes had to adjust to Buffalo’s lineup, which is smaller than what they typically face in the ACC but very skilled.
“I coached in the Mid-American Conference and I was very aware of the kind of athletes they recruit,” he said. “Most of the time, they’re undersized but very, very good.”
The first thing Buffalo coach Nate Oats did on Selection Sunday when he found out they were playing the Hurricanes is look at tapes from the Bulls’ conference games against Bowling Green, which is coached by Michael Huger, who played for Larrañaga at Bowling Green and then coached under him at George Mason and Miami for eight years.
Oats figured a team coached by a Larrañaga disciple would give him clues about what to expect from the Canes.
“Huger said he pretty much learned everything he knows as far as coaching from Coach Larrañaga, so they do run similar stuff,” Oats said before Thursday’s game. “(UM) is just Bowling Green on steroids. They’ve got the pro version. These guys are pretty freaky athletic.”
In the end, that proved the difference.