Less than a year since their first ever trip to the Final Four, the Miami Hurricanes are not currently projected to even make the NCAA Tournament.
The Hurricanes know they need to make the most of the games they have left to change that outlook.
With Matthew Cleveland back following a two-game absence with a hip injury, the Hurricanes enjoyed a rare game this season with all of their starters available on Saturday against Virginia Tech.
Miami took advantage as Cleveland keyed a balanced effort that saw five different Hurricanes score 14 or more points, resulting in a much-needed 82-74 victory over the Hokies at the Watsco Center.
Cleveland totaled 15 points and 13 rebounds while Norchad Omier and Kyshawn George each led the Hurricanes (15-7, 6-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) in scoring with 16 points. Bensley Joseph and Nijel Pack also had 14 points each.
“We made some adjustments at halftime and the players really rose to the occasion and we finished strong,” UM coach Jim Larranaga said.
Miami, which also beat Virginia Tech on the road on Jan. 13, trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, but used a 9-0 run in the second half and took the lead for good with 3:05 left on an Omier hook shot in the paint. The Hurricanes scored 56 points in the second half after trailing 35-26 at halftime.
Cleveland put the punctuation mark on the win with a thunderous dunk with 58 seconds left.
“I was so happy he returned,” Larranaga said. “When we don’t have a complete roster it’s very difficult for us because our bench hasn’t been able to produce the points and rebounds that our starters have produced.”
Omier, who also had seven rebounds, picked up his fourth foul with 12:01 left in the second half and went to the bench, but returned with 9:24 remaining. He managed to stay in the game until fouling out with 1:15 to go.
Miami’s 9-0 surge capped by a Joseph three-pointer put Miami ahead 60-59 with 6:42 left.
Hunter Cattoor, who had 19 points for Virginia Tech (13-9, 5-6) hit a pair of free throws followed by back-to-back buckets from Sean Pedulla (21 points) to put the Hokies back in front.
But an Omier steal and fast break score that was followed by a great play by George when he stole the ensuing inbound pass and scored, put Miami up 66-65 with 3:42 left.
Omier and Cleveland helped the Hurricanes respond with a much better game inside after being outscored 18-4 in the paint in the first half. Miami flipped that edge to 22-14 in its favor in the second half.
The Hurricanes also committed nine turnovers in the first half, but only two in the second half.
“We dribbled less...,” Larranaga said. “Against a team like Virginia Tech which packs it in around the paint and if you try to dribble in there early in the possession you have a bunch of guys who will slap the ball out of your hand. In the second half, we spread them out and got much better looks.”
The Hurricanes have continually dealt with injuries throughout the season and although they finally had a full lineup on the court this week, multiple players are still dealing with injuries.
“For me, it’s been very frustrating because practice doesn’t look like it should,” Larranaga said. “We miss our starting unit no matter which guy is out.”
Wooga Poplar, who recently returned from an ankle injury, hurt himself early in the game and limped off the court. He returned moments later and played 34 minutes, but was limited to only seven points on 1 for 5 shooting.
“We’ve got to get him going. Since his ankle sprain, he hasn’t been the Wooga we know he’s capable of being,” said Larranaga, who did not specify if Poplar’s brief exit to the game was related to his prior ankle injury.
Since Jan. 6, the Hurricanes are 4-5 with two of those losses at the Watsco Center. But Miami has now won three of its past four games.
Miami needs to string together a strong stretch to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume in the coming weeks. But it won’t be easy. The Hurricanes have nine regular season games remaining including five on the road. They play North Carolina twice and Duke once at home. They also have road dates at Virginia - their next game on Monday night - as well as Clemson and Florida State.
“We know all season we’ve had ups and downs, but in this particular month, we know we need to play our best and come together fully” Joseph said. “In the locker room, everyone is staying positive, picking each other up, knowing we’ve been here before, but we know it’s a lot more work to do.”