After losing two straight to ranked conference foes, Saturday’s home game against lowly Wake Forest was indubitably a must-win for a UM men’s basketball team looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
Miami, playing in front of a sparse student section, defeated the Demon Deacons 74-56 at the BankUnited Center and allowed coach Jim Larranaga to empty his bench toward the end of the game.
The teams were tied at 34 at the half, but Miami (16-9, 7-5 ACC) outscored Wake Forest (12-15, 3-10 ACC) by 18 in the second half with a dominant defensive effort that only allowed the Demon Deacons 22. That number is the lowest offensive output in the second half for any Miami opponent this season. Wake Forest went from 52 percent shooting in the first half to 30.4 percent in the second.
“In the second half we focused better, defended better and scored better – did everything a little bit better,” Larranaga said.
Miami hit three 3-pointers as part of a 13-0 run over a five-minute stretch early in the second half. The run blew a one-point game open, and the Hurricanes never looked back.
With Virginia winning and N.C. State losing, the Canes are now in a three-way tie for fourth in the ACC with those two teams.
Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji dropped 18 points apiece to lead the Hurricanes. The two had efficient shooting performances, Scott 7-for-11 and Kadji 8-for-12 from the field. Scott, who was cleared to play with his lower extremity injury 30 minutes before the game, also collected seven rebounds and four assists.
“As soon as we started the game I was kind of sluggish and I felt like I was moving slow,” Scott said. “It got better as the game progressed. The leg got looser.”
Kadji was able to get the ball in a lot of areas on the floor where he likes to score.
“We worked on that yesterday, on those middle-of-the-zone shots and the corner shots,” he said. “So I just think my teammates did a good job of finding me, and I just had to make the open shot.”
Rion Brown was the only other Hurricane in double figures. He had 11 points, six rebounds and three assists.
Guard-oriented play dominated the game. Miami had an assist on 20 of its 30 field goals. However, the team also took 31 3-point attempts and only three free throws. Malcolm Grant’s play epitomized that stat, as he went 3-for-10 from beyond the arc, but also registered an individual season-high of six assists.
In his post-game press conference, Larranaga was pleased the team made 12 3-pointers, but then realized it took 31 attempts to reach that number, and semi-jokingly withdrew his previous statement.
Reggie Johnson finished the day six points and eight rebounds. He only played seven minutes in the first half, and was barely able to get offensive touches with one field goal attempt before halftime.
“He’s a wide body down there,” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “We did our best in the zone to crowd it down there and make it tough for him to catch down there knowing that he’s a tough matchup for us.”
Garrius Adams returned to the first time since Jan. 2 against UNC-Greensboro. Saturday marked his first action in conference play this season, and he played 16 minutes with six points coming off two 3-point buckets.
Miami now prepares to go into its most critical stretch of the season if it is serious about reaching the Big Dance. Larranaga, however, prefers not to distract his team with tournament talk and keeps them focused about current tasks by creating an acronym for the word “win.”
“I explained what the acronym W.I.N. means,” Larranaga said. “W-what’s, I-important, N-now … If you focus on the present, and you’re dealing with all the things you have to deal with during the game in a positive way, then the score takes care of itself. That’s what we’ve asked the guys to do – focus on the things that are important now.”
The message has gotten through to the players.
“Of course [reaching the tournament] is a goal and it’s a dream, but we can’t deal with the future unless we take care of the present,” Scott said. “Today, it’s the present, it’s ‘what’s important now.’ Our next game is Maryland. That’s what’s important next. If we take care of that, it’ll take care of itself.”
The remaining four games on the schedule are all against teams the Canes have faced once already this season.
The Hurricanes first travel to Maryland for a Tuesday night meeting with the Terrapins in a rematch of the double-overtime thriller Feb. 1.
Miami then returns home and will be well-rested against FSU on Feb. 26 looking to avenge last weekend’s road loss. The Canes will then head to Raleigh, N.C. on Feb. 29 to play N.C. State, which handed Miami its third conference loss earlier in the year.