17 years ago to the day, head coach Jim Larrañaga led George Mason to its first-ever Final Four. Now, he has made it back — this time with the Miami Hurricanes, a team dropped by the university from 1971-85 due to a lack of support.
Safe to say that won’t be happening ever again.
Hurricane fans erupted as fifth-seeded Miami overcame a 13-point second-half deficit to stun No. 2 Texas 88-81 on Sunday evening at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City. Orange and green confetti covered the court while the Hurricanes cut down the nets and hoisted the Midwest Regional trophy — a similar scene to when Miami beat Pittsburgh for the ACC co-regular season title at the Watsco Center mere weeks ago.
The ‘Canes are now heading to Houston for their first Final Four in program history.
“It’s the same exhilaration … because you just love it when your players accomplish a goal they set out before the season,” Larrañaga said when comparing his feelings 17 years ago to today.
Miami’s victory comes only one year after advancing to its first-ever Elite Eight, where the Hurricanes were dominated by the Kansas Jayhawks. This time around, the ‘Canes ousted the Big 12 tournament champions thanks to a game-high 27 points by Jordan Miller, who was a perfect 7-of-7 from the floor and 13-of-13 from the line.
“That loss [to Kansas] sat with me for a really, really long time,” Miller said. “Having the opportunity to right your wrongs and get past something that stumps you previously is a great feeling … What I’m most proud of is the will and the togetherness of this team.”
All five of Miami’s starters finished in double figures, including 14 points from ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong. The ‘Canes stuck together, even when things looked grim.
Texas held the lead for nearly 28 minutes thanks to its superb offense. The Longhorns drilled seven 3-pointers on 54.8% shooting from the floor in the first half to take a 45-37 advantage into halftime. Texas soon led by double digits and were up a game-high 13 points with 13:29 remaining.
Texas’ physicality and speed pushed Miami off rhythm, allowing the Longhorns to force turnovers and beat the ‘Canes in transition, where they used alley-oops to ignite the Texas-heavy crowd. Guard Marcus Carr led the Longhorns with a game-high 17 points, and forward Timmy Allen was right behind with 16.
“Normally, we’re the faster team when we take the court, not the biggest, but we’re normally the fastest,” Larrañaga said. “And I thought Texas showed that they’re every bit as fast, and maybe even a little faster than us, athletically.”
But then something changed. The Hurricanes more than doubled Texas’ score in the last 10 minutes. Wong, who had just two points in the first half, had eight points in that span to lead Miami back. Miller secured the win with eight free throws down the stretch.
“There’s no big secret in this. We’re very good but we’ve got to play very good,” Larrañaga said he told his team after calling a timeout in the second half. “[From that point on], our defense dramatically improved. Our rebounding improved. And once we get stops, we really can score the ball.”
When the Hurricanes tied the game at 75 with just under four minutes to go, Miami knew it could win.
“I would just say I thank the ACC for preparing us for these types of games, just coming in, every game we play in the ACC is always a close game,” Wong said. “It’s always a shot to win. I feel like coming into March we’d been in those types of situations, and we played good.”
All year, the Big 12 was widely considered the best conference in college basketball, but the last ACC team in the tournament dethroned its winner in a game Miami could have quit multiple times. Miller attributed his team’s perseverance to one simple factor — “None of us wanted to go home.”
The Hurricanes made a habit of proving doubters wrong all season long, particularly in the NCAA tournament. 12th-seeded Drake was a popular upset pick over Miami in the Round of 64, and the fourth-seeded Indiana Hoosiers were favorites against the ‘Canes in the second round. Miami won that game by 16 points.
Then, the Hurricanes dominated No. 1 seed Houston in the Sweet 16, winning 89-75 after being 7.5-point underdogs. Through it all, Miami is still dancing.
And forward Norchad Omier, the first Nicaraguan to play Division I basketball, couldn’t be more grateful.
“Making it this far is just, I just gotta sit down and think about it. And it’s amazing, man. I’m from Nicaraqua, a country where basketball is not even a real predominant sport,” he said.
Miller, Wong, and guard Nijel Pack were named to the Midwest Regional All-Tournament Team, and Pack was named the Most Outstanding Player. The sophomore guard is making quite the mark in his first NCAA tournament appearance, averaging 18.5 points through four games. The Kansas State transfer put up 15 against Texas.
“How hard we fought to get back in this game and to come back and actually win this game, especially on a stage like this, it was an amazing feeling I can’t even put into words … I’m loving the experience so far, but we’ve still got more work to do,” Pack said.
Miller added, “After the buzzer sounded, it felt surreal. Being able to go on stage, hold up the trophy, cut down nets again, truly blessed … we’re going to celebrate tonight, maybe a little bit tomorrow. But it’s not over.”
Now the Hurricanes are off to Houston, where they will face fourth-seeded UConn on Saturday at 8:49 p.m.