It was the sort of play Jim Larranaga could have blamed on exterior forces. The Miami basketball coach could have bristled at the officials when they whistled Lonnie Walker for a questionable shooting foul on a half-court shot with 0.4 seconds left in the first half. He could have even unloaded on his star freshman for an unquestionably boneheaded play.
Instead, he grinned when the ESPN broadcast asked about the call, which wound up giving North Carolina a halftime lead in an eventual 82-65 Tar Heels win in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals Thursday night in Brooklyn, N.Y. He parsed his words and searched for some of the dry wit he’s known for.
“We’ve made some,” Larranaga said before briefly pausing, “I’ll say, some ill-advised decisions.”
By this time of the season, Larranaga doubtlessly hoped his star freshman class had shaken away most of the jitters which inevitably come with a first season in the ACC. Walker, a standout shooting guard, became the No. 24 Hurricanes’ leading scorer during conference play. Chris Lykes, another freshman guard, became one of the league’s premier sixth men and an oft-unguardable spark plug.
Thursday in Brooklyn presented their biggest stage yet, an ACC tournament clash with the No. 12 Tar Heels — and neither could rise to the moment. Walker scored 9 points on 4-of-14 shooting. Lykes scored 6 while going 3 for 11 from the field and 0 for 4 from 3-point range. Even star post player Dewan Huell, a sophomore, was virtually nonexistent with only 5 points and 7 rebounds.
Offensive inconsistencies have plagued Miami all season and in the team’s first conference tournament game they led to the Hurricanes ultimately being blown out despite North Carolina (24-9) failing to score for the first 7:09.
“We had a nice lead. We were playing well and all of a sudden we started rushing,” Larranaga said during his postgame news conference. “It was definitely a shift in the momentum.”
The first 4 minutes were the sort of rock fight the Hurricanes (22-9) are accustomed to. Miami didn’t score until a Lykes layup 3:27 into the game. But the long initial drought meant the miniature eruption to follow couldn’t bury the Tar Heels. Senior guard Ja’Quan Newton dropped in a pair of layups. Junior guard Dejan Vasiljevic canned back-to-back 3-pointers. With 12:58 to go in the first half, center Ebuka Izundu hit a short jumper to give the Hurricanes a stunning 14-0 lead. They did it all without Walker scoring and with Lykes sitting on the bench for most of the run.
And by halftime it was gone.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) March 9, 2018
North Carolina countered with a 12-2 spurt, which eventually grew to 19-6. After falling behind 14-0, the Tar Heels finished the half on a protracted 32-17 run to take a 32-31 lead into the break. Walker only scored 4 points and didn’t crack the scoring column until a dunk with 3:27 left. Lykes scored 4, too, and didn’t hit a shot for the last 8 minutes.
“Very disappointing knowing that we had a big lead on them, but there’s nothing we can do now,” Newton said after the game. “We just go back, watch film, see what we did wrong and get ready for whatever is next for us.
Without star shooting guard Bruce Brown, who has now missed more than a month and could return when the NCAA Tournament begins next week, Miami found itself perhaps overly reliant on Walker and Lykes. Walker plays the same spots on the floor as Brown and could pick up some of the scoring load. Lykes could fill some of Brown’s duties as a distributor, as the sophomore often served as a de facto point guard.
At the Barclays Center, veterans kept the Hurricanes afloat. Newton led the way with 17 points and 7 rebounds, and drilled a pair of 3s. Junior guard Anthony Lawrence was the only other player to crack double figures with 12.
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s veterans keyed a second-half onslaught to bury Miami and it often went through some of the Hurricanes’ young guards. Senior wing Theo Pinson scored a career-high 25 by going mostly at Vasiljevic. Senior guard Joel Berry typically kick-started the offense by driving right past Lykes. The Tar Heels won despite a 1-for-15 day from All-American forward Luke Maye.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) March 9, 2018
Miami will return to Coral Gables, Fla., earlier than it had hoped this weekend and it will have felt like a missed opportunity. Less than two weeks earlier, the Hurricanes took down this same team in Chapel Hill, N.C. For about 5 minutes Thursday, it seemed like they were about to do so again.
“Even though we’re young and we do lack experience,” Larranaga said, “[we] feel good about our chances no matter who we match up.”
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