It was a quirky match-up from the minute it was announced; sixth-seeded Miami drawing eleventh-seeded Loyola-Chicago; the Ramblers riding a 10-game win-streak, where they captured the Missouri Valley Conference title along the way.

Toss in the fact this Cinderella hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1985—and that the Hurricanes were still Bruce Brown-less—and it was no wonder so many bracketology experts called for the Thursday upset.

The Canes were down early, scrapped back to tie things up at the break—followed by an 11-4 run to start the second half—but down the stretch, the tide turned and everyone in the building felt it. Miami played on its heels, while Loyola-Chicago never flinched; right down to a Donte Ingram dagger with :01 remaining.

Ramblers 64, Hurricanes 62. Game over. Season over.

All afternoon, it seemed like the mantra was “survive”. Live to see another day. Get through this awkward opening round showdown, avoid another one-and-done scenario—like last year’s outing against Michigan State. Shake it off, regroup and hope to get Brown back in the mix for a second win and week of rest with a Sweet 16 on the horizon.

Instead, that survival attitude ultimately did the Canes in as Miami never found way to extend its lead or take over the game.

After jumping out to a 6-4 lead in the first three minutes, the Ramblers hit back-to-back 3-pointers that immediately shifted the momentum; forcing Miami to tighten up offensively, while Chicago-Loyola clamped down like the defensive-minded bunch they are.

SLOW START, BUT FIGHTING BACK

The Canes were unable to get comfortable offensively; going over five minutes without a field goal—yet bailed out somewhat by a Ramblers’ offense that cooled a bit. A 3-pointer by Lonnie Walker at the 10:22 mark pulled the Canes to within three and both teams battled back-and-forth until a Ja’Quan Newton free throw at the 6:37 mark tied things back up.

Almost four minutes of scoreless basketball ensued before the Rambler and Canes traded a few lay-ups—but clutch free throw shooting and heads-up play from Miami turned a four point deficit into a 28-28 ballgame at halftime, courtesy of two Chris Lykes free throws and and a Dejan Vasiljevic (off a Newton miss) as time expired.

That late half hustle and sense of urgency was completely opposite in the game’s waning moments.

The Canes pushed the lead to seven after a Lykes 3-pointer four-plus minutes into the second half, but Miami couldn’t press on—Loyola-Chicago patient with its offense, finding the open man under the basket for high-percentage lay-ups, while the Canes were missing jump shots left and right.

Ebuka Izundu hit back-to-back free throws at the 11:58 mark, but Lucas Williamson answered; drilling a 3-pointer on the Ingram assist. Visiljevic hit a jumper a possession later and after a Izundu block, Lykes turned it over, giving Clayton Custer an easy lay-up—one of many four- or five-point swings in the second half that forced the pressure to mount for Miami.

THE UNRAVELING; PLAYING TIGHT & MOMENTUM LOST

A possession later, a Lykes steal and lay-up attempt was blocked. Canes got the rebound, but Walker couldn’t hit the shot. After Lykes missed another jumper, Sam Waardenburg pulled it down and kicked it out to Walker who buried a three.

Ingram immediately answered with a dagger of his own; as did Vasiljevic—who was then outdone by Custer, who dropped a dime. 12 points in under nine seconds of play, it was the type of series that favored the underdog more than the slight favorite clinging to a small lead unable to extend.

Walker and Ingram traded shots and at the 6:58 mark, it was still a two-point Miami lead before two scoreless minutes where neither side delivered.

Anthony Lawrence tipped in a missed lay-up by Lykes, ending the drought—but the Ramblers immediately answered with an Aundre Jackson jumper.

A two-point game with under three minutes to play, Miami’s unraveling act was fully underway.

Dewan Huell went one-of-one from the line, but knocked down a jumper on the next possession; the Canes going all-in with their athletic big man as nothing else was working.

A foul by Lawrence sent Cameron Krutwig to the line—where he knocked down both and cut the deficit to three. Less than a minute later, another Lawrence foul sent the junior Miami guard to the bench with his fifth foul. Insult to injury followed when a Lykes rebound resulted in a Huell turnover and a game-tying 3-point attempt by Custer; a gutsy call from head coach Porter Moser, who drew up a hammer play to get his guy a wide open look.

Newton knocked down a brilliant fall-back, baseline jumper pushing the lead back to two—but a foul on Walker sent Marcus Townes to the line, where he hit one-of-two on a play the Canes defense needed to clamp down.

With :23 remaining, Walker had the inbounds pass swatted away—going off his leg for the turnover—but the Miami defense hung in there and denied a Townes lay-up and Krutwig put-back attempt. Waardenburg hauled it in with :10 remaining and the Canes looked to add to a one-point lead, Walker headed to the line for a one-and-one.

The rest is the stuff of March Madness legend; Ben Richardson hauling in the rebound and Ingram pulling up at the top of the key to drop a game-winning 3-pointer.

The Canes got a final half-assed attempt with :0.3 remaining, but the long inbounds pass was batted around as time expired—pandemonium ensuing for the feisty, underdog Ramblers.

So clutch in close games down the stretch this year, Miami lacked that mojo that propelled it to recent comeback wins over Boston College and Virginia Tech, as well as the ability to weather the storm in Chapel Hill as North Carolina tied things up in the final seconds, before Newton dropped a game-winner as all of Tar Heel nation was prepping for overtime.

In short; nothing ever felt right in Dallas on Thursday. Not the opponent. Not the early pace of the game. Not the quick start to the second half, nor the missed opportunities and swings—each one feeling more detrimental as the game rolled on.

Even more disheartening; the immediate future for this Jim Larranaga-led squad.

WHERE DO “U” GO FROM HERE?

The loss of Brown in late January had a silver lining; the sophomore would be back for the ACC Tournament. Didn’t happen. Neither did The Big Dance.

Dressed out today, but not active—the hope was that Brown would soon surfaced the Canes survived the Ramblers. They didn’t—meaning Brown’s last go-around with Miami was an overtime loss to Florida State months back, as all signs point to the guard turning pro.

A similar narrative for the Walker; also expected to be a one-and-done type that is so common in present day college basketball.

The freshman who earned ACC Honorable Mention this season, as well as making the ACC All-Freshman team—looks to have ended his career with an amateurish turnover in the waining moments, as well as a missed free throw—both huge gut-punches in a game the Canes gave away late.

Newton is also gone, as the team’s lone starting senior.

Miami will still return some talent in 2018-2019, but a recent FBI probe—where the Hurricanes were ultimately deemed innocent—took its toll on recruiting this season.

UM is still very much in the mix for 5-star power forward Vernon Carey Jr.—whose father played offensive line on Miami’s 2001 national champions squad and was a first round pick of the hometown Dolphins—but to date still has no early signees as the investigation scared off some quality talent.

Translation; a lot was riding on this post-season for Hurricanes basketball momentum-wise. As talented a squad as Miami has seen in a while—albeit lacking upperclassmen leadership that truly great teams have—a little run in the tourney would’ve gone a long way.

Instead, a second consecutive season that came to a screeching halt, courtesy of a first round exit against an opponent who scrapped harder and played like they wanted it more.

Frustrating, disheartening and all too common for a Miami program looking to take a proper step forward.

Comments are closed.