Behind stellar play, Miami advances to Sweet 16

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Redshirt senior guard Angel Rodriguez (13) scans the court during the Hurricanes’ win over Virginia in February at the BankUnited Center. Rodriguez scored a career-high 28 points in the Canes’ victory over Wichita State in the Round of 32 Saturday afternoon. Hunter Crenian // Contributing Photographer

Redshirt senior guard Angel Rodriguez (13) scans the court during the Hurricanes’ win over Virginia in February at the BankUnited Center. Rodriguez scored a career-high 28 points in the Canes’ victory over Wichita State in the Round of 32 Saturday afternoon. Hunter Crenian // Contributing Photographer

When it comes to college basketball’s NCAA Tournament, the name of the game is “survive and advance,” and the Hurricanes did just that over the weekend. After wins over Buffalo and Wichita State, Miami will play in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. The No. 3 seed Canes will need to continue their impressive play in order to keep advancing as the competition stiffens.

Obviously, in order to notch two NCAA Tournament wins, a team has to do a lot of things well and the Canes certainly showed signs of excellence in their two contests. On the defensive end, the Canes were suffocating throughout the weekend. They held Buffalo to 39 percent shooting overall and outrebounded them by 18 in the first round. They carried much of that momentum into Saturday and played what might’ve been their best defensive half of the season in the first 20 minutes against Wichita State. The Shockers didn’t reach double digits until about the 10-minute mark of the first half, and their 19 points at halftime was a season-low for scoring in the first half.

Redshirt senior point guard Angel Rodriguez was also a bright spot for the team during the first two games of the tournament. He scored 24 points against Buffalo, then followed that up by shooting 9-of-11 from the field on his way to a career-high 28-point performance against Wichita State. He is the heart and soul of this team, and when he is at his best the team plays with more energy and confidence. Rodriguez said he had “a little more sense of urgency” to explain his high-scoring performances.

“I’m sure I could’ve played like that earlier in the year, but I only care about winning games and some games I don’t have to score as much,” Rodriguez said. “I guess it’s two games the team needed me to do what I had to do.”

For all the great things the Canes (27-7) did in the first two rounds, there are still some areas that the Canes need to improve in as they prepare for No. 2 seed Villanova. The Canes were sloppy and careless with the ball at times against Wichita State, and it almost cost them dearly in the end. After jumping out to a 21-point lead, turnovers allowed the Shockers to get some easy baskets and eventually climb back to take a one-point lead late in the game. Bad passes and lazy ball handling will be key areas of concern when the Canes take on an aggressive Villanova defense on Thursday.

Another point of emphasis for Miami, and center Tonye Jekiri in particular, will be staying out of foul trouble. While Rodriguez is leader of the team, the seven-foot senior might be the most valuable player on the roster because of his impact on the defensive end. After picking up a couple of fouls early in the game, Jekiri was forced to sit for long stretches throughout the rest of the contest against Wichita State. With him on the bench, the Shockers were able to take advantage of Miami on the offensive glass, which led to many second-chance opportunities and points.

Overall, it was a very successful weekend for the men’s basketball team and they will look to carry their momentum into Thursday’s game. If they clean things up in some of the areas they struggled in this past weekend, a first-ever Elite Eight appearance is well within reach. Even that would still fall short of the team’s goal, though.

“Win a championship,” is what Rodriguez said is the team’s only goal, even brushing off a Final Four appearance. “No doubt. Win a championship.”

The Canes play Villanova in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky.

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