Last season, the Miami Hurricanes entered a non-conference battle against the No. 5 ranked Louisville Cardinals with a chip on their shoulder.
Their first game of the season, it was a test that UM ultimately couldn’t pull through with. With a 19 point lead at halftime, Jordan Nwora led the Cardinals to an 87-74 victory at the Watsco Center. Disappointing to say the least, that contest was presumably how the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign went by for coach Jim Larranaga’s team.
This time around, Miami was matched up with Purdue in college basketball’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Coming off blowout victories over North Florida (77-59) and Stetson (82-60), Tuesday’s game was realistically UM’s first ‘real game’ in terms of talent and overall ceiling.
That chip was back on the Hurricanes’ shoulders versus the Boilermakers, with senior guard Chris Lykes out with an ankle injury. Without their top scorer and facilitator of the past two years, and have a total of just eight scholarship players available, it seemed like a disaster in the making.
Early on, that seemed to have been the case.
UM trailed 32-14 as the first half came to a close. With 5 of 22 shooting (22.7%), 0 of 10 three-point shooting (0%) and 5 of 10 free-throw shooting (50%), it was an offensive catastrophe formula, one that appeared to be a lost cause in terms of making a comeback. It was Miami’s lowest-scoring margin in the first half since 2014 when they scored 15 against Virginia Tech.
History wasn’t on their side either, as Miami hadn’t overcome a halftime deficit against a non-conference team since 2018 against Fresno State – trailed by four points.
However, Miami left the excuses behind and put the ultimate goal in reach: it was time to make a statement.
“In the first half, we didn’t share the ball very well, we took more difficult shots than we wanted and we missed those and didn’t get any second-chance points. At halftime, everything changed,” Larranaga said. “We continued to play better and better defense, we rebounded the ball much better and we shared the ball on offense and got much easier shots.”
The Hurricanes began to rely on the likes of their sophomore guards Isaiah Wong and Harlond Beverly to play the role of Lykes, spreading the ball around and adding rebounds along the way.
Wong bounced back from a cold start to finish with 11 points and three rebounds, adding 7 of 11 shooting from the charity stripe. Beverly with the all-around playmaker, scoring nine points and racking up team-highs in rebounds (9) and assists (6). Beverly added four steals and two blocks.
The scoring impact came from redshirt senior Kameron McGusty, who finished with 16 points on 5 of 10 shooting and 7 of 10 free-throw shooting. The Oklahoma transfer also had five rebounds and converted on an and-1 layup to take a two-possession lead with 42.3 seconds to play.
Even freshman Matt Cross’ impact was felt, primarily in the late run, scoring five of his seven points with under 2:50 left.
“Down the stretch, I really like having him in. I think he knows how to win,” Larranaga said on Cross. “He’ll make a good defensive play, he’ll hit an open man for an easy shot, and in this case, he got two layups and he got fouled and made one of the two free-throws. He’s really a solid performer.”
In the end, the Hurricanes took advantage of its 15 of 25 second-half shooting (60%) and 13 of 21 makes from the free-throw line (61.9%) to edge Purdue 58-54.
At the end of the day, the most impressive part of Miami’s third win of the season wasn’t the fact that they had won, rather that they adjusted for the better when they were required to.
Finishing the game on 1 of 17 three-point shooting, UM prioritized the use of the paint, scoring 28 points inside. They also got Purdue in foul trouble, resulting in 7-foot-3 center Zach Edey – the Boilermakers’ leading scorer – to sit on the bench and allow Miami to continue striving at the rim.
Redshirt junior Deng Gak made his presence felt with Nysier Brooks temporarily down. Gak played a total of 17:23, garnering three points and five rebounds. Larranaga noted his impact after the game, noting that “he did a lot of good things to help us.”
Miami also held Purdue to a drastic 4 of 25 shooting (16.0%). The Boilermakers entered the game shooting an impressive 43.6 shooting from beyond the arc through their first four games, so holding them to less obviously makes an impact.
Overall, Miami just didn’t fall apart. The absence of their top scorer, shooting struggles and newly implemented lineup didn’t take a toll on this Hurricanes team.
That’s exactly why they could be a special group.
“It’s very, very easy when faced with adversity for a team to become unglued and fall apart,” Larranaga said. “I was very, very proud of the fact that, at halftime, our guys pulled together, encouraged each other and said, ‘We’re much better than we played. We’ve got to pull together and play a much better second half.’ And we did.”