One of the nation’s blue-blood programs paid a visit to Coral Gables, but didn’t leave with the result it had become accustomed to year after year.
Long before the final horn sounded, everyone on Miami’s men’s basketball team was having a great time at a party with plenty of guests inside the Watsco Center, including former MLB slugger Alex Rodriguez and NFL wide receiver Eric Decker.
It was clear the Hurricanes (14-4, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) were determined to run the visiting Tar Heels (12-5, 4-2 ACC) off the court as quickly as possible.
The Hurricanes’ 85-57 victory over North Carolina didn’t only represent Miami’s recaptured focus after a gut-wrenching defeat against Florida State, but it also reassured one of the oldest teams in college basketball the confidence that it could contend with anyone in the ACC.
“There was no question our guys were really ready to play and execute our game plan to perfection. One of the advantages we had was we had a week to prepare for this game. We got a lot of rest, so we had a ton of energy,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga said. “Right from the opening tip, we demonstrated that energy and effort at both ends of the court.”
And as much as the Hurricanes enjoyed snapping a five-game skid versus the Tar Heels, they tip off again Saturday afternoon with sights of coming out victorious in a rematch against Florida State. The Atlantic Coast Conference, let alone college basketball, is now paying full attention to Miami on the hardwood.
Prior to facing their arch-rival Seminoles, here are some takeaways and highlights of Miami’s 28-point beatdown over North Carolina…
1. The Hurricanes are even more dangerous when together from the start
Miami has endured multiple come-from-behind battles in the early stage of conference action this winter. Injuries haven’t plagued the program as seen in previous seasons, but each Hurricane in the deep rotation has been relied upon in garnering vital ACC wins at home.
Due to this, despite a last-second loss to Florida State and a week’s layoff, the Hurricanes were able to blaze their way past a Tar Heels unit that had won three of its last four ACC matchups.
Hardly 11 minutes had passed, and Miami had raced away with a 30-11 advantage. North Carolina never recovered, while veterans Sam Waardenburg and Isaiah Wong continued to heat up from 3-point territory before halftime.
The team’s scoring offense has climbed to fifth in the ACC, while the team has been experiencing all the while of what has gradually developed for weeks: trust.
“That’s the feeling that we have out there right now is that trust in one another. Everyone really is trusting,” Miami sixth-year redshirt senior forward Sam Waardenburg said of the Hurricanes’ ability to create floor spacing and dynamic shot opportunities.
As their lead continued to swell, the Hurricanes made it clear that they are willing to use the firepower of their backcourt to outscore teams like the Tar Heels, who have posed problems for undermanned Miami teams before this year.
“When we’re planning, we plan for the game to be decided in the last minute of play. What offense we’re going to run, what defense we’re going to play, how we’re going to guard, who should be in there to rebound,” Larrañaga said. “Most games in the ACC do come down to the last minute, sometimes the last possession. We try to prepare our guys for that, because we loved that we were able to get out in front and stay out in front the whole game.”
2. Sam Waardenburg enjoyed a career night at no better time
Before Tuesday night, Waardenburg began to establish himself as Miami’s starting forward that could provide the Hurricanes with scoring in the frontcourt.
Waardenburg added an exclamation point to that ability, scoring a season-high 21 points as the Auckland, New Zealand, native continued to bury 3-point shot after 3-point shot on a 7-for-9 field goal mark. His five triples contributed to the 13 total made in a simmering Miami offense.
“When you give Sam Waardenburg a chance to rest, and he was shooting the ball well in practice, he can be a major factor for us at both ends of the court. He’s the one responsible for guarding [North Carolina forward] Armando Bacot to begin with,” Larrañaga said. “And then, because our guards are so good at getting to the rim, oftentimes Sam is hanging on the perimeter. When he goes 4-for-4 from three in the first half, obviously that gives him and his teammates a lot of confidence.”
3. Ever so close to the Associated Press Top 25
As tirelessly as the Hurricanes have worked to pull out wins and climb ahead in the ACC, their worries of being charted in the Associated Press Top 25 may be coming to an end soon.
Some across college basketball moaned on the afternoon of Jan. 10, when Miami received 65 votes following an upset win at No. 2 Duke, but just missed the major polls. A home win over Florida State, a 5-2 ACC team sitting behind first-place Miami in the conference’s standings, will most likely lift the Hurricanes to their first national ranking since March 2018.
“The ACC regular season is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Every game is important,” Larrañaga said. “You’ve got to prepare for each one of those and you never know when you’re going to face adversity … The season is very, very long and you’ve got to just focus on one game at a time.”
The Hurricanes, still with 13 games to play in the ACC, have a good ways to go. Tuesday’s wire-to-wire showing gave them great reason to continue plowing toward regained success.
4. Limiting turnovers creates far cleaner looks for all
It’s evident that Miami found more shots for more contributors once the basketball stayed in the Hurricanes’ hands for a great duration of possessions. The shots hailed from inside and outside, while the Tar Heels remained one or more steps behind the Canes’ devastating attack.
At one point, Miami had worked up to a 57% 3-point percentage with only three turnovers committed. That kind of combination will take a poised team to a dreamland in the ACC.
“I think Florida State may have been our worst game turnovers-wise in a while. But apart from that, the team’s been doing a great job taking care of the ball,” Waardenburg said. “The more shots that we get, we’re such a good shot-making team. We’ve got great shot makers … That puts us in a better position to win those games. So, going forward, there’s going to be a huge emphasis of ours is going to be taking care of that ball and keep sharing it.”
5. Onwards to Florida State
Moments after a Jan. 11 loss to the Seminoles, the Hurricanes exited Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee, Florida, with a bitter memory. All they needed was one final stop on defense to win their 10th consecutive game and defeat their in-state foe for the first time in eight tries.
Instead, neither happened, as the evening ended with a controversial foul call against Miami. Now, the Hurricanes shift towards executing a similar performance against an opponent that dethroned No. 6 Duke in overtime by one point Tuesday. Florida State has won four games in a row after a blowout loss to Wake Forest.
“Our guys have fought through a lot of adversity, as everybody knows, but they’re becoming better for it,” Larrañaga said. “They’ve learned that they can overcome all these challenges.”
Florida State redshirt sophomore guard Caleb Mills, a Houston transfer, is averaging a team-high 13 points per game. Veteran forward Malik Osborne is the Seminoles’ leading rebounder with 7.2 rebounds on average. Miami’s starting backcourt trio in Isaiah Wong, Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore will look to balance scoring, distribution and reboudning early and often in order for the Hurricanes’ to again defend home court.
“It’s going to be a really grit-and-grind game like the last time,” Wong said. “We’re going to be more prepared and we have a little grudge that we need to get off our chest. So, we’re going to come back strong in that next game at home; we’re coming.”