University of Miami

UM seniors will cherish incredible ride

UM guard Angel Rodriguez, going up for layup past Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu during Thursday night’s Sweet 16 loss, is one of four seniors whose college careers are finished.
UM guard Angel Rodriguez, going up for layup past Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu during Thursday night’s Sweet 16 loss, is one of four seniors whose college careers are finished. AP

Jubilant Villanova fans spilled out of the KFC Yum! Center on Thursday night and headed across the street to the Troll Pub, Side Bar and Patrick O’Shea’s for bourbon and beer to celebrate the Wildcats’ 92-69 Sweet 16 victory over the University of Miami.

Meanwhile, in the Hurricanes locker room, dejected UM players and coaches were forced to accept that their exhilarating post-season run was over.

No more games. No more pep talks from Coach Jim Larranaga. No more dancing in the locker room. They would not become the first Miami team to reach the Elite Eight, as they had hoped. And they would not climb atop a ladder in Houston to cut down the net after a national championship, as they had dreamed.

For the second time in four years, the Hurricanes (27-8) fell four wins shy of college basketball’s ultimate prize.

“We came farther than a lot of people thought we would; so, from the outside looking in, we overachieved,’’ said redshirt-junior Kamari Murphy. “But for us inside this room, we didn’t. Our goal wasn’t to make it to the Sweet 16 and lose. I feel like we let each other down.’’

The loss was particularly painful for the team’s four seniors – Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, Tonye Jekiri and Ivan Cruz Uceda. Although they are all looking forward to the possibility of playing professional basketball, they felt they left work undone and were not quite ready to take off their Hurricane jersey for the final time.

“I hate losing, and this feeling really (stinks), but I know deep inside, looking at the positive, we had an unbelievable ride,’’ Rodriguez said. “We were a top team in the country, got a lot of wins. Winning is fun, and we did that for the whole season.

“At the end of the day, I’m going to hold my head up. I’m very proud of myself, very proud of the team, and everything we’ve done. Today doesn’t define the season.”

Rodriguez Tweeted on Friday: “I want to thank God first, then everybody who has been part of this journey. I gave my all and I leave with no regrets.”

The Hurricanes spent 17 consecutive weeks in the polls, which broke the school record of 12. They were ranked in the Top 15 for 15 weeks, which had not happened since 1959-60. They defeated five ranked teams: No. 3 Virginia, No. 11 Louisville, No. 16 Utah, No. 22 Butler and No. 24 Duke.

They were the first team in school history to sell out the arena the entire season, which may explain their perfect 9-0 home record in ACC play and 15-1 overall record at the BankUnited Center.

“We’ll definitely be remembered as one of the best teams in Miami history,” said junior Davon Reed. “I think we finally gained some recognition nationally this year, proved a lot of people wrong. A lot of people had us counting us out early, didn’t have us getting this far. I’m sad we went out like this but we’ll definitely be remembered.”

McClellan agreed: “I think people will remember us as a real gritty team, never gave up, determined. I think we’ll be remembered for a lot of positive things even though we didn’t make it past the Sweet 16.”

UM returns six players next season – Reed, Murphy, Anthony Lawrence, Ja’Quan Newton, James Palmer and Ebuka Izundu. Larranaga also signed a highly-regarded recruiting class, which includes McDonald’s All-American 6-10 power forward Dewan Huell, combo guard Bruce Brown, Australian point guard Dejan Vasiljevic, and 6-11 center Rodney Miller, from Oak Hill Academy.

Shooting guard Rashad Muhammad becomes eligible. He transferred to UM from San Jose State last August, and was their leading scorer.

“We’ve got a lot of guys leaving, but we’ve got a lot of guys coming in, so we’ve got to preach the same principles to the new guys and get this team rolling again and have another great season,” said Murphy, a fiery team leader.

Reed, who has a steady demeanor and made the ACC All-Academic team, appears poised to lead alongside Murphy.

“I’m going to work on completing my game over the summer, but most importantly, bring back that leadership,” he said. “We’re losing not only leaders, but a lot of scoring. We have to go back to the drawing board. We’ve got a lot of new, young talent coming in. We’ve just got to be ready to set history again next year.”

Jekiri got nostalgic and misty-eyed as Thursday night’s game wound down.

“I was thinking that my journey has come to an end playing with this group of guys, how they and the coaches taught me a lot,” he said. “I feel so bad that this is the way it’s going to end because I really felt like we should have gone farther. Nothing you can do. We can’t turn back the hands of time. Just have to accept it and move on.”