Defeating Boston College in its final regular season game on Friday, the Miami Hurricanes possessed a certain degree of confidence heading into the 2021 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament as the No. 13 seed.
Miami (8-16, 4-15 ACC) lost to Pittsburgh (10-11, 6-10 ACC) by 15 points at home on Dec. 16 to begin conference play, though that did not seem to phase 10-year Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga, a former ACC Tournament champion back in 2013.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Wong scored 20 points, and Miami defeated 12th-seeded Pittsburgh 79-73 in the first round of the ACC Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C on Tuesday.
“They played better than us this afternoon, they were able to score more, and we didn’t do a great job of stopping them,” Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel said. “They have a really talented offensive group of guys, and that was on display. Wong is as good of a scorer as we have in our league, he creates so many things for their other guys as well.”
With the double bonus in their favor, the Hurricanes offense ignited a 9-0 run with approximately three minutes remaining in the second half, while holding the Panthers to seven points in the final three-and-a-half minutes.
“I’m a great believer in numbers, and the numbers today were very indicative of the terrific win we had,” Larrañaga said. “After our Boston College win, I could see the energy in our team and the excitement of just getting a win after struggling for almost the entire regular season. And then you see today where we go 22-for-28 from the foul line, a terrific job there. We had 17 assists and only six turnovers, that was a huge statistic, and then the job Anthony Walker did on Justin Champagnie, the first-team all-conference performer, he ended the game 5-for-20, 1-for-8 from three. So, we have to give Anthony and his teammates a lot of credit.”
Walker, alongside guards Elijah Olaniyi and Kameron McGusty, poured in 14 points apiece, as such energy was exhibited not solely through Wong’s 20-point outing.
“One of the things that happens is you try to keep your players upbeat and try to remind them that one game you lose it, move on to the next one and get ready,” Larrañaga said. “I think our players almost felt like it didn’t matter what we did, we played close so many times [this season] and came out on the short end. We got so deflated that It was very hard for the players to bounce back immediately, yet that’s what you really have to do; you have to live constantly in the present. You’ve got to figure out what the game plan is for the next game, and then the players have got to bring the energy, effort and execution to the game plan to make that work.”
Pittsburgh starting guards Nike Sibande and Femi Odukale combined for 52 points, 24 and 28 points each, in spite of an 11-point showing from All-ACC First Team honoree from forward Justin Champagnie.
“Justin missed some shots that he normally makes,” Capel said. “He just had an off-day, it happens. It’s unfortunate that it happened today, but it just happens. They [Sibande and Odukale] did some really good things, especially on the offensive end, they were able to make some shots. Femi was able to create some things, so really pleased for them individually, but they have a lot of work to do just like always.”
Despite shooting 5-for-20 on 3-point field goals, the Canes achieved a 22-of-28 mark from the foul line, while 17 team assists and only six turnovers remained vital to all five Miami starters finishing in double figures.
“We’ve got more comfortable with each other, because injuries have made the starting lineups vary from different players starting from others,” said center Nysier Brooks, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds. “I would just say that our chemistry is just getting a little bit better by each game, and then hopefully it can come to a point where we’re very sharp and crisp, and we just keep winning.”
Though he did not match his season-high, 27-point performance from Friday, McGusty contributed four rebounds and four assists in the team’s first ACC Tournament victory since 2019 versus Wake Forest.
“Kam McGusty, I’ve got to give him a lot of the credit,” Larrañaga said. “Kam’s been playing a lot of the point, so he’s like our fourth point guard. We started with Chris Lykes, and he got hurt, then it was Harlond Beverly and he got hurt, and we thought Isaiah was [trying to do] too much. We move Kam McGusty over there and he ends up with 14 points, four assists, and only one turnover, with two steals, so he has a terrific floor game.”
Leveling the rebounding battle with its opponent, Miami also scored 22 points off of Pittsburgh’s 14 turnovers in route to a rejuvenating win after losing multiple games by five points or less over the course of the regular season.
“Those are games where later on in the season, I feel like we could just execute and close out in the last two minutes of the game, and tonight we proved it here,” said Brooks. “We’ve just got to keep executing effectively and hopefully we just keep winning; it’s a one-game season from here on out.”
Miami advances to the second round of the ACC Tournament on a two-game winning streak, having reached 79 or more points in each win.
Fifth-seeded Clemson (16-6, 10-6 ACC), which defeated Miami in both meetings this season, patiently awaits, nonetheless.
The Canes and Tigers will tip-off at 2:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.