CORAL GABLES, Fl. An hour before one of Miami'sbiggest home games of the season playing No.15 Florida State at the BankUnited Center on Sunday it was announced that center Reggie Johnson wasineligible 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, 8-6Atlantic Coast Conference) and first-year coach Jim Larranaga, whose team isperched precariously on the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble.
That's why Miami fans stormed the court after Sunday's 78-62 victory overFlorida State, an act FSU coach Leonard Hamilton recalled with a smile anddescribed as "interesting."
For a while it seemed Johnson being declared ineligible would be yet anotherimpediment to UM earning its first NCAA tournament berth since 2008, which, bythe 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 reboundsper game because of an incident that's tied to the infamous Nevin Shapiroscandal that crippled the football program in August. There's no telling whenJohnson will be re-instated, but the 'Canes fight on.
Miami, short on talent and long on desire, desperately needs to get to 10 ACCvictories. That almost ensures an at-large NCAA berth. UM has two conferencegames remaining, at North Carolina State on Wednesday and at home againstBoston College on Saturday, so that goal remains within reach.
Maybe, that's another reason Hurricanes fans stormed the court Sunday. UM fansaren't a sophisticated bunch when it comes to hoops. On the other hand, it'snot 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 in 2000-01.This victory was worth celebrating. So that's what UM fansdid.
Miami guard Durand Scott, who scored a team-high 17 points, was raising hisarms toward the heavens as his classmates paraded him on their shoulders afterthe game. Not long ago he was telling Johnson he'd love to play in a game inwhich UM fans stormed the court. It happened Sunday.
"I was just happy and joyful," Scott said. "I couldn't stopsmiling."
It was appropriate.
The Shapiro scandal the one in which the convicted Ponzi schemer claims he providedathletes with prostitutes, cash and VIP access at nightclubs, among otherthings has now affected the Miami basketball team twice.
Swingman DeQuan Jones was accused of receiving 10,000 inrecruiting payola. He was declared ineligible by the school, but was clearedsoon afterward and has been playing most of the season. On Sunday, Jonesfinished with six points. He had a crucial second-half blocked shot that firedup his teammates and the crowd.
It seemed nothing could keep the 'Canes down on Sunday, not Johnson'sunexpected suspension, not the magnitude of the game, nothing.
"We've got a great group of kids," Larranaga said, "and they'vefought through this basically since August."
A few other things made this victory extra special.
-- Miami entered the FSU game having lost three of its previous four games.This is the wrong time of year for a bubble team to have marginal success, but Miaminow 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 hissuccess as the Hurricanes' coach.
-- FSU (19-9, 10-4) is Miami's biggest ACC rival, and Hamilton has dominatedUM. He entered Sunday's game having beaten Miami six consecutive times and 11out of the last 12.
-- This was a big crowd, relatively speaking. Miami drew 7,261 fans Sunday, thesecond largest crowd in Bank United Center history. The largest crowd since thebuilding opened in January 2003, was last seasons crowd of almost 8,000. Thosefans witnessed an emotional victory over Duke, but in a controversial postgameincident 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 SouthFlorida day in which the state also hosted the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, fourhours north, and the rain-delayed Daytona 500, about five hours north, UMattracting such a crowd is noteworthy. People have noticed the 'Canes, a rarityin hoops.
"One of the things we're trying to build here is not just a good team, buta good program," Larranaga said.
Johnson, sidelined for the start of the season while recovering from a tornanterior cruciate ligament on his knee, isn't an All-ACC caliber player. Buthe's a key piece of what Miami does. Miami was 5-4 without Johnson, and 11-4with him. Without Johnson, for example, Larranaga, a hardcore man-to-man defensedevotee, had to resort to a zone defense on Sunday. To Larranaga, a zonedefense is the equivalent of a gimmick, a tricked-up scheme borne out ofinadequacy. He despises the zone.
But because Miami's offense was sluggish it couldn't play its normal inside-outgame without Johnson Larranaga figured something had to be done.
"We weren't scoring so you have to make some kind of change," hesaid.
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 3-pointersby forward Kenny Kadji (15 points, career-high five blocks, four steals) andguard Rion Brown (nine points). After that UM never allowed FSU to get closerthan 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 inAugust.