CORAL GABLES, Fl. An hour before one of Miami's biggest home games of the season playing No.15 Florida State at the Bank United Center on Sunday -- the e-mail was issued: center Reggie Johnson was ineligible due to an impermissible travel benefit given to a family member.
It was absolute craziness. But it's been that type of season for UM (17-10, 8-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) and first-year coach Jim Larranaga, whose team is perched precariously on the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble.
That's why Miami fans stormed the court after Sunday's 78-62 victory over Florida State, an act FSU coach Leonard Hamilton recalled with a smile and described as "interesting."
For a while it seemed Johnson being declared ineligible would be yet another impediment to UM earning its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008, which, by the way, is Miami's only NCAA berth in the last seven years.
The Hurricanes didn't have Johnson's 10.6 points and team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game because of an incident that's tied to the infamous Nevin Shapiro scandal that crippled the football program in August. And there's no telling when Johnson will be re-instated. But the 'Canes fight on.
Miami, short on talent and long on desire, desperately needs to get to 10 ACC victories. That almost ensures an at-large NCAA berth. UM has conference games remaining at North Carolina State (Wednesday) and against Boston College (Saturday), so that goal remains within reach.
That's another reason Hurricanes fans stormed the court Sunday. UM fans aren't a sophisticated bunch when it comes to hoops. On the other hand, it's not often the Hurricanes, which beat Duke, 78-74, in overtime three weeks ago, beat two top 15 opponents in a season. The last time that happened was the 2000-01. This victory was worth celebrating. So that's what UM fans did.
Miami guard Durand Scott (team-high 17 points) was raising his arms toward the heavens as his classmates paraded him on their shoulders. It turns out not long ago he was telling Johnson he'd love to play in a game in which UM fans stormed the court. It happened Sunday.
"I was just happy and joyful," Scott said. "I couldn't stop smiling."
It was appropriate.
The Shapiro scandal the one in which the convicted Ponzi schemer was said to have provided athletes with prostitutes, cash, and VIP access at nightclubs, among other things has now affected Miami basketball twice. Swingman DeQuan Jones was accused of receiving 10,000 in recruiting payola. He was declared ineligible by the school but was cleared soon afterward and has been playing most of the season. On Sunday, Jones finished with six points. He had a crucial second-half blocked shot that fired up his teammates and the crowd.
It seemed nothing could keep the 'Canes down on Sunday, not Johnson's unexpected suspension, not the magnitude of the game, nothing.
"We've got a great group of kids," Larranaga said, "and they've fought through this basically since August."
Another few things made this victory extra special.
--Miami entered the FSU game having lost three of its previous five games. This is the wrong time of year for a bubble team to have marginal success, and Miami now has a chance to reverse its late-season fortunes.
--Hamilton is UM's former coach, having posted a 144-147 (.495) record, including a No. 2 national ranking and a Sweet 16 appearance, from 1991-2000. He's the man who many UM fans say built the Bank United Center because of his success as the Hurricanes' coach.
--FSU (19-9, 10-4) is Miami's biggest ACC rival, and Hamilton has dominated UM. He entered Sunday's game having beaten Miami six consecutive times and 11 out of the last 12.
--This was a big crowd, relatively speaking. Miami drew 7,261 fans Sunday, the second largest crowd in Bank United Center history. The only one larger since the building opened in January 2003, was last year's crowd of almost 8,000. Those fans witnessed an emotional victory over Duke but in a controversial postgame incident they were prevented from storming the court, much to their dismay.
Yes, FSU supplied a large amount of Sunday's fans. But on a cloudy South Florida day in which the state also hosted the NBA All-Star game in Orlando, three hours north, and the rain-delayed Daytona 500, about five hours north, UM attracting such a crowd is noteworthy. People have noticed the 'Canes, a rarity in hoops.
"One of the things we're trying to build here is not just a good team, but a good program," Larranaga said.
Johnson, sidelined for the start of the season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament on his knee, isn't an All-ACC caliber player. But he's a key piece of what Miami does. Miami was 5-4 without Johnson, and 11-4 with him. Without Johnson, for example, Larranaga, a hardcore man-to-man defense devotee, had to resort to a zone defense Sunday. To Larranaga, a zone defense is the equivalent of a gimmick, a tricked-up scheme borne out of inadequacy. He despises the zone.
But because Miami's offense was sluggish it couldn't play its normal inside-out game without Johnson Larranaga figured something had to be done.
"We weren't scoring so you have to make some kind of change," he said.
It was a great move. When Miami trailed, 18-11, it switched to a zone defense. The Hurricanes then went on a 27-10 run, taking a 38-28 lead on back-to-back three-pointers by forward Kenny Kadji (15 points, career-best five blocks, four steals) and guard Rion Brown (nine points). After that UM never allowed FSU to get closer than seven points.
The Hurricanes aren't used to winning big games. Miami is now 15-29 (.341) against ranked ACC opponents. But their NCAA Tournament hopes remain alive.
"They're talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament," Hamilton said. "There's no doubt about it."
Now, all underdog the 'Canes have to do is finish the fight they started in August.