There’s no mistaking Miami for just a football school anymore. Not after Larranaga guided the once-struggling Hurricanes to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference with a team that looks like it can make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Shane Larkin scored eight of his career-high 28 points in the final 2½ minutes to help No. 9 Miami pull away and beat North Carolina 87-77 in Sunday’s ACC tournament final.
Trey McKinney Jones added a career-high 20 points for the top-seeded Hurricanes (27-6), including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 6:27 left that started Miami’s final push toward its first tournament title.
It came one week after Miami completed its surprising run to its first ACC regular-season title in program history. And just as Larkin had promised, the Hurricanes weren’t satisfied.
“We want more,” senior Julian Gamble said. “After we clinched the outright regular-season title at home and we (cut down the nets), we were like, ‘Wasn’t that the funnest thing you’ve ever done?’ We wanted to go to Greensboro and do it again.”
Miami ended up getting the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region. The Hurricanes will face 15th-seeded Pacific on Friday in their tournament opener in Austin, Texas.
Larkin was chosen the tournament’s MVP after finishing as runner-up for league player of the year. But he was at his best when the Hurricanes needed him to complete their climb from being picked fifth in the preseason poll to ACC champion.
In a terrific back-and-forth game filled with big shots, the Hurricanes finally slowed P.J. Hairston and the third-seeded Tar Heels (24-10) enough down the stretch to secure what amounted to a road win in front of UNC’s home-state crowd.
It was an emotional moment for Gamble and fellow seniors Durand Scott and Reggie Johnson — who were all part of the team that was a last-place seed in the 2010 tournament that made the program’s first run to the semifinals.
As the confetti fell from the rafters after the final horn, Scott leapt into Gamble’s arms, then shared a big hug with Johnson as he fought back tears. In the locker room, Johnson talked with reporters with his left arm wrapped around the championship trophy in his lap.
Then there was Larranaga, the second-year coach taking over a program that hadn’t come to the ACC tournament seeded better than fifth before this year. He lost in the ACC final in 1982 and 1983 as an assistant at Virginia but finally earned the elusive title.
“From day one, these guys have embraced our approach,” Larranaga said. “That doesn’t mean that every day was great. It means we went through a transition of learning. Once they did learn, they felt good about it. And they kept trying to get better.”
Miami won its first 13 league games to drain the suspense from the regular-season race, though they stumbled by losing three of five coming into Greensboro.
“I don’t know about the other guys on the team, but I do a lot of research online, seeing what people are saying about us individual players on our team, and I just kept seeing that everywhere: ‘They peaked too early, they’re not going to do anything, they’re finished,’” Larkin said. “And that just motivated me to go out there and play as hard as I could.”
Miami shot 51 percent and made 12 of 22 3-pointers — six from McKinney Jones, four from Larkin. Miami used its size advantage against North Carolina’s four-guard lineup to take a 36-28 rebounding advantage that led to 13 second-chance points.
The Hurricanes needed every bit of it to beat the Tar Heels for the third time. Miami blew North Carolina out by 26 points in February but didn’t put this one away until the final minutes.
Hairston scored 28 points with six of the Tar Heels’ 13 3-pointers, one shy of tying the program’s team record in the tournament. But it wasn’t enough to secure their first ACC title since 2008 nor coach Roy Williams’ 700th career victory.
For the Tar Heels, the third straight finals appearance didn’t appear likely after that humiliating loss to the Hurricanes on Feb. 9. But that’s when Williams inserted Hairston into the four-guard starting lineup, a move that changed everything for the Tar Heels.
“I’ve got nothing to complain about with my team (Sunday),” Williams said. “I’m really proud of my team. And I’m not talking about the entire year. I’m talking about today. I’m unbelievably proud of what they’ve accomplished and how far they’ve come when everybody was abandoning ship earlier. ... My team gave great effort today, my team was tough today, my team was attentive today. And yes, we made a couple of mistakes, but that’s the game of basketball.”
Miami finally took control when Larkin drove by Dexter Strickland for a layup and a 76-71 lead, then McKinney Jones struck again with a 3 from the left corner off a feed from Rion Brown that made it 79-71 with 1:36 left — the Hurricanes’ biggest lead to that point.
Larkin went 6-for-6 at the foul line in the final minute to keep Miami in control.
“That was a veteran group,” UNC junior Reggie Bullock said. “They made some big-time shots.”
Hairston and Larkin were the biggest stars of a dynamic first half that featured six ties and 14 lead changes. Both players had 15 points.
Hairston again wore the padded bandage to protect a cut to the webbing between his left middle and ring fingers he suffered in in Friday’s quarterfinal win against Florida State, a wound to his non-shooting hand that required eight stitches.
Larkin’s floater in the lane with 4 seconds left gave the Hurricanes a 44-41 halftime lead.