Marquette held Miami to its lowest first-half output (16 points) of the season. (SI)
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With every NCAA tournament game comes a pre-packaged story line, ready for mass consumption. The first game of Thursday night's East Regional semifinal doubleheader at the Verizon Center was to be Miami coach Jim Larranaga's celebratory homecoming to the nation's capital. Larranaga, 63, had won 273 games as the head coach at George Mason University from 1997-2011 and took the Patriots on a Cinderella run to the Final Four by winning two Sweet 16 games in this very building. During a press conference Wednesday, Larranaga, now in his second year as the head coach at Miami, unashamedly said that the Verizon Center was, indeed, heavy with good memories and not "just another building."
On the heels of Larranaga's ebullient and viral Ali Shuffle video after Miami's semifinal victory over Illinois last Sunday in Austin, the script seemed to call for Larranaga and the 'Canes to run over Marquette and advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history. After all, Miami had won 29 games and the championship of the storied Atlantic Coast Conference, had earned a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance and, in 5-foot-11 sophomore Shane Larkin had one of the most dynamic players in the country, the Player of the Year in the ACC.
None of this mattered Thursday night. Inexplicably, the Hurricanes arrived listless and soft and were shoveled into a deep hole by Marquette, an inartistic collection of relentless bangers and slashers who shared the regular-season title in the last year of the original Big East Conference with Georgetown and Louisville, clearly a potent and underrated force. By the time Miami began playing with emotion and desperation, they trailed by 19 points with less than a quarter of the game left, and even a furious rally was too little to save Larranaga's party. Marquette choked off Miami's rally, never letting the 'Canes get closer than 14 points until the final minute, and inducing the obligatory "Over-rated" chant from fans of Marquette, itself a No. 3 seed that finished off a 71-61 victory.
The win sends Marquette and its emotional, burr-headed coach, Buzz Williams, into the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003. (That year, Marquette went to the Final Four with Dwyane Wade as the star player and Tom Crean as the head coach; Crean now coaches at Indiana, which went up against Syracuse in Thursday night's second game, creating the possibly of a matchup between Williams and the man who hired him). Marquette, whose style embodies the physical history of the Big East, had four players in double figures, led by Jamil Wilson with 16 points and eight rebounds. On the opposite side, Larkin endured -- and in fact, participated in -- a desultory game. He made just four baskets and never seemed to exert his will on Marquette guards Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue.
It was Blue's 15-foot jumper just before halftime that gave Marquette a 13-point lead at the break. The Golden Eagles opened the second half on a 12-7 run that ended with a three-point basket by Wilson, a redshirt junior transfer from Oregon. That gave Marquette a 41-23 lead and put Miami in desperation mode with just 15 minutes to play. The Hurricanes twice got within 14 points, but never closer. In reality, the game was a beatdown. At the finish, Marquette players ran to the side of the floor to the school's cheering section. Cadougan popped his jersey and screamed, "We're here!" Unless Duke, also a No. 2 seed, beats No. 3 seed Michigan State on Friday night in the Midwest Regional, the ACC will have no teams in the Elite Eight.
Miami had been inexplicably flat from the start. Perhaps it was the loss of senior forward Reggie Johnson (out with a knee injury suffered in the round of 32 win over Illinois), whose production and minutes had diminished in the second half of the season but had 15 rebounds in the Hurricanes' first two tournament games and was their most persistent inside presence. In his absence, Marquette relentlessly shoved easy entry passes to Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, opening passing lanes for kickouts, open perimeter shots and drives. It was a dominant first 20 minutes, as the Golden Eagles twice opened 12-point leads at 24-12 and 26-14 and went into the locker room with a 29-16 lead when Blue pulled up for an 18-footer with three seconds left in half. He finished the half with eight points, while Wilson had seven and Otule and Trent Lockett had six each.
Miami was even more ineffective on offense than defense. The Hurricanes shot just 20.7 percent (six-for-29) and made only 1-of-11 three-point shots in the first half. Larkin took just two shots (he made one), and handed out only two assists. The halftime deficit matched Miami's largest of the year: The Hurricanes trailed Wake Forest, 42-29, on the road on Feb. 23, and eventually lost that game, 80-65. The 16 points were Miami's lowest halftime output of the season. During one stretch, the Hurricanes went nearly seven minutes without scoring and had just four points with less than 11 minutes left in the first half.
Miami never dug out of the hole, and won't be able to make good on the promise of a Sweet 16 party in Larranaga's second home. Instead, it is Marquette that plays on.