It took more than an impressive performance from Isaiah Wong for the Miami Hurricanes (4-3, 0-2 ACC) to take down No. 24 Virginia Tech (8-1, 2-0 ACC) this time around.
His athleticism and guard skills helped UM cut a 17-point deficit, but a failed game-winning attempt with under five seconds left helped the Hokies edge past the Hurricanes 80-78.
“We never hung our heads. We had a good plan,” coach Jim Larranaga said of UM’s near comeback. “Last year, we were down seven [with 4:26 left] to go, came back and won the game in triple-overtime. I reminded our players of that and told them, ‘There’s plenty of time. Don’t look at the clock; play the game. Force turnovers, foul them and force them to make some pressure-packed free throws.’ … It was a very well-played game.”
Here are five takeaways from Miami’s third loss of the 2020-21 season.
1. Props to Larranaga.
Last season’s meeting between both squads was a thriller, being the only game in Larranaga’s gifted coaching career that he’s reached triple-overtime. That said, it was also Miami’s standout win of the 2019-20 season, and one that they hoped to capture again at Blacksburg.
But in just a few month’s difference, Larranaga came into its first road game of the season with a completely different starting lineup. Their five last year was a bit more experienced – DJ Vasiljevic (Sr.), Keith Stone (Sr.), Rodney Miller Jr. (R-Jr.), Kameron McGusty (R-Jr.), Chris Lykes (Jr.). On Tuesday, neither one of those players were available to play.
Instead, the 10-year UM coach went with the following: Isaiah Wong (So.), Harlond Beverly (So.), Anthony Walker (So.), Elijah Olaniyi (R-Sr.), Nysier Brooks (R-Sr.). That younger group struggled to get things going and eventually allowed VT to use a 12-3 run as the first-half closed to extend their lead and never look back.
Larranaga eventually did adjust, using an 8-0 run to cut their deficit to 66-61 with 5:44 left. That started with putting together the right pieces, as Wong and Beverly played as the primary guards while freshman Matt Cross’ 16-points on 6-of-8 shooting, mixed with Olaniyi’s 11 and Brooks’ 10 helped put things down to the wire.
“I thought that was a very well-played college basketball game between two serious competitors,” Larranaga said. “Our players fought back from a double-digit deficit and had a shot to win the game. A lot of guys stepped up.”
It’s worthy to note Larranaga’s diligence with his banged up crew, and how he managed to continue fighting with against a nationally ranked program with all four starters unavailable.
2. Adversity didn’t make Wong shy away.
With Lykes and McGusty out, the pressure was on the sophomore guard to get things clicking for Miami. He came out the gates slow, scoring just two points in the first half as his team trailed entering the second period.
Wong picked things up late, scoring 16-points in what’s his 17th career double-digit performance and his seventh in as many games this season. And with UM down seven points with under a minute left, he had two points, added a steal and did enough to have the chance to win the game.
Despite missing, seeing such confidence from a second-year player can’t be coached and goes to show the potential Wong has.
3. Cross’ shooting gives Miami a needed boost.
Now coming off the bench for UM, the 6-foot-7 freshman continues to be a useful asset as they continue identifying their offensive scheme. Against VT, Cross provided the shooting touch, draining a team-high four shots from beyond the arc.
Miami finished the game 10 of 25 (40.0%) from 3-PT range, the highest of seven games by far. Not only does it give the team motivation to continue improving their shot selection and overall play, but it lets Larranaga know to continue running with Cross as a primary shooter from deep.
4. Larranaga goes with Earl Timberlake late, but it doesn’t go as planned.
Freshman Earl Timberlake, who was out for UM’s first four games with an ankle injury, was given the trust by Larranaga to play crunch time minutes. On the court for a total of 25:29, Timberlake truly struggled, shooting 0 of 4 on field-goal attempts and recording just one point.
Timberlake also had two turnovers, and simply couldn’t get into his rhythm during the game. He played over Anthony Walker and Deng Gak late and didn’t show much to make that happen again.
Still, expect Larranaga to continue displaying confidence in his consensus four-star prospect, as he has said before that his game will progress as he continues learning about his teammates.
“The one thing I know is that he’s also gonna turn the ball over,” Larranaga said. “And the reason I say that is he tries stuff, and until he gets really comfortable and confident of what his teammates can do, he’ll probably try some passes that maybe the guy is not ready for, maybe it’s a little too hard, too fast for the guy to catch it. But he’ll learn what they’re capable of and they’ll learn to be more prepared for the type of pass he’s capable of.”
5. Deng Gak looking to add what Rodney Miller Jr. did.
It was announced earlier in the week that redshirt senior Rodney Miller Jr. would miss the remainder of the season with a torn MCL, likely putting a cap on his career at UM. That said, it was a blow to Larranaga’s big-man group, losing an experienced player and one that started 30 games last season.
Gak, a redshirt junior, is expected to be one of those players stepping up for Miller, adding a presence inside the paint whenever Nysier Brooks is off the court. He showed just that Tuesday, scoring a career-high eight points on 4 of 4 shooting.
Continue to expect his presence as Miami’s ACC play continues and they take on lengthier opponents.