The Miami Hurricanes said all week that it planned to win the NIT. The team turned words into action during Tuesday’s performance against N.C. Central.
Behind a fantastic night of three-point shooting, Miami defeated a solid N.C. Central squad 75-71 in the first round of the NIT. While the Eagles were ranked as a seven seed in the 32-team tournament, the Canes needed all of its eight three-point field goals to win.
Using a balanced attack that featured five players with at least eight points, the Canes advanced to a second round matchup against the winner of Illinois and Alabama.
Fresh off a disappointing Selection Sunday, Head Coach Jim Larrañaga’s squad could have folded as N.C. Central cut the lead to just two with under a minute left, but Miami did just enough to hold off a pesky N.C. Central squad.
“Three words, that’s all that matters,” Larrañaga said. “Survive and advance.”
The Hurricanes ended up having to survive, but it looked like it might cruise to a blowout in the opening minutes as a steal-and-score from junior guard Angel Rodriguez pushed Miami’s lead to 11-3. For the rest of the first half though, the MEAC regular season champs would not let the Canes pull away.
N.C. Central’s Nimrod Hilliard scored 13 points without missing a shot and even brought the Eagles within five of Miami after his third three of the half. Up 23-18, the Hurricanes went to the break on an 11-7 run and took a fairly comfortable 34-25 lead.
After the half, it was more of the same as the Canes shot 8-of-14 overall and 4-for-7 from three-point range. Despite 23 second half points from N.C. Central’s Jordan Parks, Miami held the lead for all 40 minutes.
“I’m glad we won because that’s all that matters,” junior guard Sheldon McClellan said after the victory. “At the same time we have to be better prepared for different defenses teams throw at us and just try to attack more.”
While many might shrug tonight off as an insignificant win, they have to know that winning any postseason game is significant and that this N.C. Central team is no joke. The Eagles do play in a fairly weak MEAC conference, but it finished with a 16-0 conference record and a 25-7 record overall. A team that wins 25 games at any level is a quality team, and it was also ranked fifth in Division 1 in points allowed coming into the game.
The Canes didn’t dominate the Eagles’ fantastic defense, but its balanced attack was much different than what we saw for most of this season. Instead of relying on just one or two scorers, forward Ivan Cruz Uceda (8), guard Deandre Burnett (10), center Tonye Jekiri (11), McClellan (15) and guard Manu Lecomte (18) shared the scoring load.
“We had a bunch of guys step up and make shots,” Larrañaga said. “We had good balance in our attack but we’re just happy to have won the game and advanced.”
Even if the Hurricanes don’t win or advance far in the NIT, just a couple of good performances could lay a foundation for next season. Miami won just one game in the 2012 NIT and lost to the eventual champion Minnesota in the second round. It’s impossible to know how much those two games helped make the 2013 Hurricanes into a powerhouse, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
Getting postseason experience and even more time to practice and gel as a team is invaluable. With a possible matchup against quality opponents in Illinois or Alabama on Saturday, the Hurricanes will get another opportunity for a quality win as well.
Dealing with just barely missing the NCAA Tournament can be tough. For Miami though, advancing as far as it can in the NIT may be just as valuable as being one of the 68. After a gritty performance tonight, it looks like Miami is ready to make a run.
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