Sixth-year senior guards Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore embraced their coach for one last time in the middle of the United Center.
There wasn’t enough time left on the clock.
Not enough for a sixth double-digit comeback in the second half, for an upset win over the only No. 1 seed left in the NCAA Tournament and for a remarkable four-month turnaround to carry on.
The Miami Hurricanes’ once–implausible journey was over in the Elite Eight.
“I told them actually not to be disappointed in themselves,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. “In basketball, someone wins, someone loses. We were of the final eight teams in the entire country and no one expected that when you’re picked in the preseason poll 12th. You kind of think to yourself, ‘Well, I hope we have a winning season.’ Well, boy did we have a winning season and boy these guys do a fantastic job of representing our university.”
Ahead of third-ranked Kansas by six points, Miami held the attention of its opponent and college basketball until just holding on was no longer possible after halftime.
But in Miami’s most prominent season in school history, the triumphs and points of adversity live on.
All the second-half surges, half-court game-winners and even heart-wrenching defeats will never die.
“These memories, not this game, but all the memories that led up to it, they’ll have it for the rest of their life. They’ll be sharing these stories with their grandchildren,” Larrañaga said. “I know that because I share a lot of stories with my grandchildren.”
The city of Miami will always reflect on the 2021-22 Hurricanes as special.
All they invested in their season, finished at 26-11, was worth the initial uncertainty, time invested and lack of attention in the major polls.
College basketball was alive again in South Florida.
“They accomplished so much, not just in basketball, but they ignited a community. We had so much support throughout the season and especially in the NCAA Tournament,” Larrañaga said. “I think generating that kind of enthusiasm at the University of Miami in a basketball program that you have to remember didn’t even exist from 1972 to 1985. And so, now, we’ve been to the Sweet 16 three times now, into the Elite Eight once in this decade. We think we’re heading in the right direction and we think we’ll have the tremendous support of our administration and our community.”
Even as the ninth-oldest team in Division I basketball, no wins were at first guaranteed. With two new transfers in the starting lineup, an adjustment period was forecasted.
Not before a month into the new season, it showed.
With losses of 16 and 32 points each to Dayton of the Atlantic 10 and then-No. 10 Alabama, Miami’s 12th-ranking preseason prediction appeared to be accurate during Thanksgiving weekend in Orlando.
Its camaraderie, however, formed almost right away.
“A lot of times, those guys have a mindset of their own and it’s not normally about the team,” Larrañaga said. “But unlike some transfers, these guys immediately became friends on the court, off the court. They played well together; they shared the ball. And from a coaching standpoint, what you’re really looking for is togetherness. Guys who are going to pull together, not pull apart, and that’s what these guys have done all season long.”
It was still early in what Larrañaga, now the only coach to guide two different double-digit-seeded teams to the Elite Eight, often emphasized as “a marathon, not a sprint.”
His team’s patience and character paid off.
“It’s not just about being a good basketball player, you’ve got to fit what the program is about, and there was no better fit than Charlie Moore and Jordan Miller,” Larrañaga said. “Once we had those two guys and they were with us for the summer, the coaches got very excited about what this season could be, but we knew we had to make some series changes in our offense and defense to make it all work. We did it, the players adapted to a new system and after getting really comfortable with each other and with the new system, we started playing really good basketball in December.”
Miami picked up momentum, reaching the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference in its best start in nearly a decade.
Almost no other team in the country reached nine straight wins. The Hurricanes did so and didn’t receive a vote in the Associated Press Top 25 in early January.
Then, as almost as soon as they rose, a drop off followed by February. A first win in six years at No. 2-ranked Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and a wire-to-wire victory over North Carolina wasn’t enough to prevent late-season-induced fatigue.
Still, Larrañaga and his coaching staff demanded the same standard: attitude, commitment and class.
“My staff does a great job of finding kids that fit our style of play and the kind of student-athlete we’re looking for at the University of Miami. The University of Miami is a great school academically, a top-50 school in the country,” Larrañaga said. “What was especially satisfying to me, my staff and the team is to have so many new guys this year.”
The Canes appeared rejuvenated and prepared to battle any team standing in its way. Once they won eight of their final nine regular games, it seemed that all the concerns over injury-riddled seasons and departing transfers vanished.
No matter how close each game, 19 of which were decided by one or two possessions, became, a group of healthy, selfless teammates moved together.
“More than anything, it just hurts because this is a close-knit group of guys. We’ve dealt with injuries over the years. We get Charlie [Moore], we get [Jordan] Miller, we just have a special season,” McGusty said. “Being able to accomplish the things we did this year, to lose it just hurts. We’ve done a lot; we’ve gotten so close. I’m going to miss playing with these guys.”
Their strengths and adjustments got figured out as soon as the adversity began to hit with a home loss to Notre Dame, and then at Virginia.
But once again, their patience and drive helped in the long run. Miami used its return to the NCAA Tournament landscape as more than an opportunity to compete again in March, first knocking off No. 7 seed Southern California and second-seeded Auburn before winning in the Sweet 16.
“Just a special group of guys we have here, including the coaching staff,” said Charlie Moore, who finishes his college basketball career at Miami, his fourth different Division I school. “It really hasn’t hit us yet to lose a game [in the NCAA Tournament] but just knowing it was our last time going on the floor probably will take a minute…I’m just excited for the season we had.”
Months before the new year, doubt existed about how the Hurricanes might be able to establish themselves down the stretch of a 20-game season. Not many were willing to give them a chance at a double-bye in the ACC Tournament, Larrañaga’s fourth 25-win season in Coral Gables and a flurry of national success.
Now, Larrañaga, the all-time winningest coach in UM men’s basketball, holds lifelong bonds, a strengthened legacy across the university and even a two-year contract extension.
“Coach [Larrañaga] has built a family environment for us and this program ever since I got here, and that’s something that’s held true this season for sure,” sixth-year redshirt senior forward Sam Waardenburg said. “I want every one of our guys to be super proud. I think it’s not going to be a couple of weeks or so until it hits us that we made the Elite Eight. We made history for this program.”
No shortage of confidence exists in Miami’s collective drive to set a similar tone again next season.
“I told all the younger guys in the locker room – after I told them I loved them – I told them to take care of this place for the next three years that y’all are here,” said McGusty, who is expected to insert his name into this year’s NBA Draft. “Just being able to accomplish what we accomplished this year, now teams coming in, or new teams, two, three years down the line, the Elite Eight is going to be the goal. That’s what we were able to do this year and I’m so happy for us.
“I love these guys. I loved playing with them. It’s been a crazy up-and-down season, but it’s good to be able to, like [Larrañaga] said, get the community involved, get all the school involved,” McGusty added.
Added Larrañaga, “We think we have a good foundation in the players returning,” Larrañaga said. “We go back to work in two weeks. We give the guys 14 days off; it’s been a routine for my entire career. Season ends, no matter when that ends, it’s two weeks off. Take care of your schoolwork and then we start getting you ready for the following season.”
Without its trio of sixth-year leaders, next season will look different.
The program’s fabric isn’t expected to change, nonetheless.
“If I was a young player or an older transfer player, I would like playing in that program,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday. “They have a lot of fun and they do it the right way.”