Their season began with a shocking loss to tiny Florida Gulf Coast – little did we know! – and most University of Miami fans figured that was the sign of a long season to come. Turned out it was, indeed, a long season.
And very exciting.
Two weeks after that loss to FGCU, the Canes upset No. 13 Michigan State. Eyebrows rose. But the nation didn’t really pay attention until Jan. 23.
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The Hurricanes were 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, including road wins at Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Boston College. Then, on one of most exciting nights in program history, the then-25th-ranked Canes stunned top-ranked Duke 90-63 on national TV and in front of a sold-out Bank-United Center.
It was the first time in school history a UM team had beaten a No. 1 team. UM students stormed the floor, and excitable TV commentator Dick Vitale hyperventilated over speedy Shane Larkin, hard-nosed Durand Scott, versatile Kenny Kadji, sharpshooter Trey McKinney Jones and energetic center Julian Gamble.
A week later, UM had moved up to No. 14, and then No. 8, and by Feb. 19, they were 13-0 in the ACC and ranked No. 2 in the nation — the highest ranking in school history. The Canes lost three of four games in the latter part of the season, including a thriller against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Skeptics said perhaps UM had peaked too early. A win over Clemson in the regular-season finale clinched the school’s first outright regular-season title. Confetti fell. The Hurricanes climbed atop a ladder to cut down the net, and the party was just getting started.
A week later in Greensboro, N.C., with very few fans on their side, top-seeded Miami knocked off Boston College, North Carolina State and North Carolina to win the ACC tournament. After the championship game, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who lost three times to the Canes this season, entered the UM locker room to congratulate the team. He called them “special” and urged them to continue listening to coach Jim Larrañaga.
The coach’s message all season had been simple: Be the team that has the most fun. And by fun, he meant playing well, and with a true team spirit.
UM earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and headed to Austin, where the Canes got past Pacific and a tough Illinois team to reach the Sweet 16 for just the second time in school history and first time since 2000. After the win over the Illini, Larrañaga became an Internet sensation with his Muhammad Ali shuffle. His players jumped out of their folding chairs and began shadow boxing with their coach, a perfect picture of the energy and joy this team exuded all season.
They arrived in Washington for the Sweet 16 with high hopes, but without their beefy center, Reggie Johnson, who injured his knee and required minor surgery. The games were being played at Verizon Center, site of Larrañaga’s greatest triumph. In 2006, he led 11th-seeded George Mason to the Final Four in a run that went through that building. Alas, this team would have no such luck.
The Hurricanes ran into a Marquette team determined to “build a wall” around Larkin and pound the boards harder than any team UM had seen all season.
The game got ugly in a hurry, the Hurricanes’ shooters all went cold, and they trailed by as many as 21 points before a late-game run made the boxscore look like a respectable 10-point loss. There were tears in the locker room, and a sense of unfinished business.
Said Larrañaga: “I told these guys when they look back on this year, they’ve had so many great memories of the things they have accomplished, and they will be able to take those with them for a lifetime.”
As will their fans.