“Go home, Gators!” filled the arena with 1:52 remaining. The 7,972 fans at the BankUnited Center serenaded the Florida contingent with the fitting chant as they slowly slipped out of the arena. The No. 17 Hurricanes led for 39:29 of the game’s 40 minutes en route to a 66-55 victory over Florida in front of a sellout crowd on Tuesday night.
Last year, Miami came back from a 15-point deficit to defeat Florida in Gainesville on a late three-pointer by Angel Rodriguez. There would be no dramatic comeback by the Gators this time around.
“We executed the game plan very well,” Head Coach Larrañaga said. “It was really about defending them. Not giving them first-shot opportunities, contesting all their shots and then having to rebound.”
Miami held Florida to 22-of-57 (38.6 percent) shooting from the field and just 1-of-12 (8.3 percent) from behind the three-point line. The Hurricanes also outrebounded the Gators 42-31.
The BUC erupted at the 6:37 mark after Sheldon McClellan put the Canes up 56-44 on his third three-pointer of the night. The Canes cruised the rest of the way, maintaining a double-digit lead until the final whistle. McClellan finished with a game-high 24 points on 7-of-12 (58.3 percent) shooting in 37 minutes.
“I’m always looking for my shot. I felt like they were collapsing in the paint a lot, so I felt I could get into my jump shot pretty easily,” McClellan said.
Miami (8-1) and Florida (6-2) took turns scoring in bursts in the first half. The Canes opened the game on a 5-0 run, which the Gators answered with a 6-0 run of their own. Miami rallied off the next seven points to take a 14-7 lead with 14:11 left. After trading baskets for the next few minutes, there was a media timeout called with 10:58 left in the half.
At the break, Miami welcomed new football Head Coach Mark Richt onto the floor. He was welcomed with a huge standing ovation by the 7,972 fans in attendance. “I came here tonight to support Coach Larrañaga and the basketball team,” Richt said to the jubilant crowd. “Also, wanted to say I’m so thankful to be back home! How ‘bout them Canes!”
The joyous atmosphere came to a sudden halt at the 5:37 mark when senior center Tonye Jekiri took a hard fall and had to go back to the locker room. Jekiri was having another stellar half for the Canes, grabbing four offensive rebounds in 10 minutes and locking down the paint on defense.
“I was very, very concerned at halftime because Tonye went out with some kind of knee situation. He really helped us defend inside,” Larrañaga said.
Freshman center Ebuka Izundu took Jekiri’s place, and Florida immediately went at the first-year player from Nigeria. Larrañaga pulled Izundu at the 2:40 mark with Miami’s lead down to just one. Senior forward Ivan Cruz Uceda came in and held the Gators scoreless the rest of the way, as the Canes scored eight straight points to close out the half. Miami led 33-24 at the break. McClellan and Rodriguez, both redshirt senior guards, each knocked down a three in the final two minutes to give the Canes some breathing room.
McClellan led all players with 12 points on 4-of-7 (57.1 percent) shooting at the half. Rodriguez was right behind him with 10 points to go with two assists. Florida came into the game ranked in the top 25 in defensive scoring, defense field goal percentage and rebounding margin. The Canes were held to 13-of-34 (38.2 percent) shooting from the field and 4-of-11 (36.4 percent) from deep.
Miami one-upped Florida’s impressive showing on defense in the first half, even without Jekiri for the final 5:37. The Gators scored just 24 points on 9-of-25 (36.0 percent) shooting and went 1-of-6 (16.7) from behind the three-point line. Florida’s best player, redshirt senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith, was held to five points on two shot attempts.
“We were all very amped up for this game. It’s a rivalry game,” Rodriguez said.
The Hurricanes extended their lead to 37-25 when Jekiri returned to the game with a brace on his left knee at the 17:23 mark. He promptly grabbed an offensive rebound and blocked a shot in a little over a minute. Jekiri ended the game with nine points and nine rebounds in 27 minutes.
The Gators flashed their vaunted defense again in the middle of the second half. Florida managed to get within five with 9:43 left, but McClellan extended Miami’s lead to eight with a step-back three on the next possession, his second three off the dribble of the night.
The Hurricanes finished 20-of-51 (39.2 percent) from the field and 7-of-17 (41.2 percent) on threes.
The Canes return to action after an 11-day break against Charleston at 2 p.m. on Dec. 19 at the BankUnited Center.