WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Storylines take root and grow in proportion to a sprawling media. They are often simple, obvious and prosaic. On Thursday night in the first game of the NCAA East Regional semifinals at the Verizon Center, 63-year-old Miami coach Jim Larranaga returned home to the nation's capital, where he had coached for 15 years at George Mason and where, in 2006, he took the Patriots on an unlikely and exhilarating ride to the Final Four. This was the script, written and awaiting approval: Larranaga coming home and, in just his second year as head coach, leading Atlantic Coast Conference champion and No. 2 seed Miami to its first appearance in the Elite Eight with a victory over Marquette.
Sometimes these storylines are so ubiquitous it's hard to imagine a breathing, sports-consuming soul caught unaware. For instance, a week ago, only the most passionate and dedicated college basketball fans were aware of the composition and demographic of the team from Florida Gulf Coast University. (And surely fewer still expected that team to outplay its No. 15 seed and win games in the NCAA tournament.) Yet by late Sunday night, FGCU was in the process of hijacking the entire tournament. Similarly, it was impossible to breathe the D.C. sports air without sensing Larranaga's homecoming. Unless you were wearing a Marquette uniform.
"Really?" said the Golden Eagles' 6-foot-11, fifth-year senior center Chris Otule, long after the game was finished. "Nahhhhh. Really? I don't know anything about that until you just said it."
Across the Marquette locker room was Otule's low-block compatriot, 6-8 junior Devonte Gardner, equally oblivious to the party planned at their expense. "This is the first I've heard of that," Gardner said. "Right here and now. First time."
If they were being disingenuous, they had earned that right in the aftermath of a 71-61 thrashing of the Hurricanes that wasn't nearly as close as that final score and which sent the Golden Eagles to the Elite Eight for the first time since Dwyane Wade led them to the Final Four in 2003. Just as likely, they were not skating around the truth at all. Burr-headed coach Buzz Williams's program works from a foundation of insular cohesion, formed during gut-wrenching conditioning sessions they call boot camp. "That's where our team is formed," Williams said. "That's what I've said for five years." It's then solidified in brutal regular-season practice sessions. It's more than plausible that for two days in Washington, they closed out the noise around them. Now they will play (former) Big East rival Syracuse on Saturday for a berth in the Final Four.
Marquette (26-8 and No. 3 seed), punished Miami from the first possession, applying smart, contentious defense that suffocated sophomore point guard Shane Larkin. They held the ACC Player of the Year to just three field goals until the game was decided in the final minutes. Marquette reached the tournament as the regular season co-champion (with Georgetown and Louisville) in the last year of the original Big East and attacked Miami with a ferocity befitting that conference's long and hard-earned reputation for tenacious physical play. More than nine minutes into the game, Miami had scored only four points and endured a scoring drought of nearly seven minutes. It was a hole from which they were never able to dig out.
"The goal was to keep the ball out of Shane Larkin's hands and [senior guard] Durand Scott's hands," said Marquette senior guard Junior Cadougan, sitting on a folding chair in the winning Marquette locker room. "We wanted to make other people take shots, we wanted to force turnovers, we wanted to stop them from getting anything in transition." Cadougan paused and a reporter said, "Check, check," before Cadougan picked up the cadence: "Check, check, check." Indeed, it was a flawless performance by the Eagles.
They finished with four players in double figures, led by redshirt junior forward Jamil Wilson, a transfer from Oregon, with 16. Gardner and junior guard Vander Blue had 14 points each, and Otule had 11. They are fueled, like so many teams, by perceived slights and a coalescing sense of having been somehow disrespected. In preparation for the win over Miami, they chewed on an online ranking that listed them No. 16 among 16 teams remaining in the field. "We will be dead last when we wake up Saturday, too," Williams said. "We will be eighth out of eight."
Marquette was also not ranked among the Top 25 teams in the AP preseason poll and was ranked No. 7 in the Big East preseason rankings, after the departure of a strong senior class from last year's Sweet 16 team. "We're used to people not giving us credit, and saying we're no good," Blue said. "If you don't give us respect, we're going to earn it." A hoary theme, always reliable.
They earned it hard against Miami. After the game was tied early at 4-4, Marquette ran off eight consecutive points, consistently pumping the ball deep into the lane to Otule and Gardner. "Chris and I talked before the game," Gardner said. "We decided we wanted to get passes even deeper than usual in the post, inside the lane instead of outside the lane." Miami had been handicapped in defending the inside by the absence of 6-10 senior forward Reggie Johnson, who suffered a knee injury in the Round of 32 victory over Illinois last Sunday in Austin. (Johnson's minutes dropped in the second half of Miami's ACC championship season, but he grabbed 15 rebounds in the team's first two NCAA games and remained a significant deterrent to opponents trying to go inside).
On the defensive end, Cadougan and Blue harassed Larkin and Scott. Otule and Gardner hedged hard on ball screens that prevented the Miami guards from penetrating on the dribble. "We wanted to work so hard on the ball screens that it was almost like two-on-one on Larkin and Scott," Otule said. "I think we accomplished that." On several occasions, Miami got open looks for Trey McKinney Jones and Kenny Kadji, but they combined to shoot only 8-for-22. "They were pretty much trapping me and trying to get the ball out of my hands," said Larkin, who finished with 14 points and four assists. "We had a bunch of open shots, but we just weren't knocking shots down."
Miami went to full-court pressure early in the second half, but Marquette scored 12 of the first 19 points after halftime and extended their lead to 18 points. Miami never got closer than 14 until the final 90 seconds, when the outcome was long decided.
"You ever have days where you're just out of sync or things just don't run along smoothly?" Larranaga asked afterward. "Almost like our trip over here, you know, our hotel is a mile and a half, it took us 45 minutes to get here, we had to go on nine different streets, weaving our way in and out of traffic and everything, and that's the way it seemed on the court. We were trying to find our way and never could. Never could get in rhythm offensively, and defensively."
And like that, the script was re-written on the fly.