Reporting Tim Kephart
CORAL GABLES (CBSMiami) – The Miami Hurricanes started Atlantic Coast Conference play as hot as any team in the country, but have stumbled into three losses in its last four games and has some fans ready to hit the panic button.
Miami was poised to win the ACC regular season title for the first time in history but in its last two games the Canes couldn’t close the deal against either Duke or Georgia Tech. Now, Miami has one final game to win the regular season title or finish an epic collapse to possibly allow Duke to claim a share of the title.
“We just want to try to keep it as another game,” senior Kenny Kadji said Thursday.
“It’s going to be an emotionally tense moment,” senior Julian Gamble conceded.
“Wait a minute,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “I just think it’s college basketball.”
The Canes will have one more shot to win the regular season championship on its own with a win against Clemson this Saturday. The Canes could also lose on Saturday and back into the title if Duke loses Saturday night at North Carolina.
Larranaga said the Hurricanes should be thrilled with their situation. After all, he said, they’re already assured of at least a title share, and they’ve clinched the No. 1 seeding in the ACC tournament.
“We have one game remaining,” he said. “If someone asked you before the conference race began, would you like to be a game up on Duke and two games up on North Carolina and sitting in first place with a home game to close out the regular season, I think everybody would say yes, that would be a fantastic year.”
Teams have utilized the pick and roll to their advantage against the Cnaes and are forcing the Hurricanes’ bigs to cover players on the perimeter. That, in turn, is wearing down the Canes post players and allowing more opportunities to get to the basket.
“They’re making our big guys come away from the basket and play ball screens multiple times in a single possession,” Larranaga said. “You’re like an accordion — you’re out and in and out and in. It’s very challenging.”
Johnson’s play has declined during the slump. He has shot 4 for 19 over the past four games and committed three turnovers in 15 minutes against Tech.
“He knows he’s capable of playing better than he has in recent games,” Larranaga said.
Johnson’s one of six seniors who will play his final home game Saturday, and five will start — Johnson, Gamble, Kadji, McKinney Jones and Durand Scott. Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin will come off the bench for the first time this season.
The Hurricanes anticipate their fifth sellout crowd of the year, and the seniors can best appreciate such support for a team perennially attendance-challenged.
“The seniors are basically the foundation of the program,” Larranaga said. “They’ll go down as the winningest team in Miami history in terms of accomplishing things that have never been done before.”
With another victory, the Hurricanes would tie the school record for wins set by the 2001-02 team, which went 24-8. An outright league title would be a first for Miami in men’s basketball.
“What better storybook ending would you want,” Gamble said, “than closing out the ACC championship on your home court on senior day?”
And if the Hurricanes win, the recent swoon can be quickly forgotten.
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