The Hurricanes were about to face a smothering, experienced, hungry Wichita State team in the second round of the NCAA Tournament early Saturday afternoon, and these were University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga’s parting words to his players as they left the locker room:
“They are gonna play very, very hard! (Raising voice.) But we’re gonna play harder than they do!”
And with that, the Hurricanes stormed the Dunkin’ Donuts Center court and put on one of the most dominating 12-minute starts and one of the gutsiest comebacks in recent tournament history. They raced to a 21-point lead, let the lead evaporate, and then rallied to reach the Sweet 16 with a 65-57 victory. It’s the second time UM reached the Sweet 16 in four seasons.
The third-seeded Canes head to Louisville for the South Regional, where they play on Thursday against the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 7 Iowa.
“People think Miami is just good weather and beaches and the Miami Heat,’’ UM forward Kamari Murphy said. “They don’t think there’s college basketball in Miami, so that’s why we have to keep showing people who we are. As long as people keep disrespecting us, we’ll come out with more fire.”
The Canes penetrated the nation’s top-ranked defense and took a 27-6 lead on 88 percent shooting. On the other end of the floor, they played defense like the Shockers and forced Wichita State to miss 10 of its first 11 shots.
UM senior guard Angel Rodriguez, playing like a man who was tired of reading about Wichita State’s celebrated guard Fred VanVleet, made all seven of his first-half shots. At intermission, Rodriguez had as many field goals as the entire Wichita State team.
“I told Ivan [Cruz Uceda] in warmups, I was like, ‘Man, today I just feel different,’ ” Rodriguez said. “I had a really good energy about the team, and I just seemed to come out on fire.”
Rodriguez carried the team in the second half as well. He finished with a season-high 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting. VanVleet was 4 of 12 for 12 points.
“Rodriguez pretty much just kicked my butt and outplayed me to start the game,” VanVleet said. “He’s really quick. He’s a great player. So, got to tip the cap to him. He was just in attack mode the whole time. It wasn’t like we just gave him anything. He went and took it. Credit to those guys. They’d better not lose next week.”
Said Shockers coach Gregg Marshall: “Angel Rodriguez, he was a just a man possessed. Everything he shot seemed to go in. He was 9 for 11. He makes circus shots at the end of a shot clock to really put the final nail in our coffin.”
Sheldon McClellan added 18 points for the Canes, the most memorable when in full sprint he slammed down a 30-foot alley-oop lob from Rodriguez to take back the lead after the Shockers had pulled ahead 43-42 with 10 minutes to go. A few minutes later, Davon Reed got a timely block and followed it with a three to stretch the lead to seven.
Wichita State is known for its resilience and never gave up. The Shockers went to a zone defense, chipped away at UM’s lead, went on an 11-0 run to take the one-point lead on a Ron Baker three-pointer with 10:17 to go. They never led again.
Miami’s 21-point lead had evaporated but not its dreams.
Larrañaga felt his team was unraveling and losing energy as the Shockers shrank UM’s lead to three, so he tried to light a fire under them by arguing vehemently with the referee when Rodriguez was called for a foul with 11:28 to go. Larrañaga was called for a technical foul, just his second in five years at Miami.
“The way we were playing to start the second half, we had careless turnovers, were very tentative, very unlike the way we played to start the game,” Larrañaga said. “As they began to whittle down the lead, instead of getting tougher and fighting harder, we tended to let up. So, I wanted the players to know, `Listen, we need to fight right now, and I’m going to fight for you.’ After the technical foul, I think it snapped our guys out of the doldrums and got them aggressive again, which I’d have to say was good timing.”
When it was all over, James Palmer and Ja’Quan Newton danced in front on the bench. Hurricanes fans — including former Cane John Salmons — chanted “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” And Larrañaga gave Rodriguez a bear hug.
“They should rename the Dunkin’ Donuts Center the Angel Rodriguez Park,’’ Larrañaga said. “He just owned the place. He was so focused, so confident. When the competition is at its highest, he’s at his best.”
There was much talk before the game about the Shockers feeling they deserved higher than an 11 seed. Rodriguez felt UM (27-7) was also overlooked.
“I feel like a lot of time the so-called experts and everybody don’t give us a lot of credit,” Rodriguez said. “Obviously, they respect us, but they seem to find a flaw in our team no matter what. But the great thing about it is we’ve kept our composure, and we play for each other.”
Newton added: “One of the reasons we played with the edge we did is that they were favored by two even though we were the higher seed. We’re overlooked because we’ve never really been a basketball school. I hope people realize now how serious we are.”
Coming on the heels of a day in which No. 13, 14 and 15 seeds pulled off upsets — the first time that has happened in tournament history — there was really no way to predict what would happen Saturday afternoon.
“The numbers beside the team don’t matter once that ball is tossed,” Marshall said before the game. “It’s just an opportunity for those guys who have always been told, ‘Well, you’re good, but you’re not quite as good as that guy to show that maybe they are.
“It makes for great theater. Makes for great games. Makes for great drama.”
He wasn’t kidding.