AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The Miami Hurricanes turned an unplanned fire drill into an impromptu party.
A fire alarm forced the team to evacuate the arena during practice Saturday. Once outside, the Hurricanes started dancing and having a good time.
“We made the most out of it,” guard Trey McKinney Jones said. “Julian (Gamble, the big post player) was out there rapping, we were just having fun. Being brothers, like we really are.”
That’s exactly what coach Jim Larranaga likes to see, though he might be having more fun than any of his players with the Hurricanes (28-6) one victory away from getting into the NCAA tournament round of 16.
ACC regular-season and tournament champion Miami, the No. 2 team in the East Regional, plays No. 7 seed Illinois (23-12) of the Big Ten on Sunday night. The winner goes to Washington D.C. to play Butler or Marquette.
“I told the players before the tournament began that I was going to have more fun than any other head coach and I wanted them to have more fun than any other team,” said Larranaga, the second-year Miami coach who took George Mason to the NCAA Final Four seven years ago.
“Nothing was going to bother me,” he said. “There would be no complaining.”
Not even after being interrupted during their allotted 90-minute closed practice at the Erwin Center on the University of Texas campus.
McKinney Jones said the team didn’t know whether to leave or not when the alarm went off. But a security guard came to escort them out of the building, and they stayed outside for about 25 minutes before going back in to resume practice. The alarm was apparently triggered by a minor mechanical problem.
“We have had a lot of firsts this year and today we had another first,” Larranaga said. “But the neat part about our Miami players is they kept everything in stride and had a good time outside, just hanging out with each other and talking and getting ready. … But we had a very good practice.”
The Hurricanes, who beat Pacific 78-49 in their first NCAA tourney game in five years, already have four more wins than ever before. They have been to the round of 16 only once and that was 13 years ago.
Illinois hasn’t been that far since being the national runner-up in 2005, though both coaches have been that far – and beyond – with mid-major teams.
Illinois first-year coach John Groce was in the round of 16 just last year with Ohio, though his Illini should feel fortunate to still be playing in this tournament after the struggles in their opener.
After building a 16-point halftime lead against Colorado, the Illini went 11 minutes without scoring (missing 14 shots in a row) and fell behind by five. They made only three field goals after halftime – all in a span of 2 1/2 minutes, but still won 57-49.
“We’re fine. We just need to bury a few shots,” Abrams said.
Larranaga knows what the Illini are capable of doing, and how they will keep shooting 3s even after extended droughts like they did against Colorado.
“I believe their confidence kept them shooting the ball and eventually they went back and hit a number of key 3-pointers,” Larranaga said. “When you are committed to that style, it gives your players a lot of freedom and you’ve got to play great defense for the entire game. Because any time you let up, they could drain four or five 3s in a row.”
The Illini certainly won’t be intimidated by Miami. They won games this season against two of the teams that are No. 1 NCAA seeds, at Gonzaga and home against Indiana. They also beat Butler in the Maui Invitational back in November.
“We’re not intimidated by anyone,” Brandon Paul said. “(The Hurricanes) have a lot of seniors like we do, a little bit older than us, but at the same time, we have been through a lot and I think our position in the Big Ten has put us in this position right now to continue to be successful.”
While Paul and D.J. Richardson are joined in the Illinois starting lineup by graduate student Sam McLaurin, the Hurricanes have four senior starters surrounding sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, the ACC player of the year.
Miami also has a size advantage inside with four players in its regular rotation who are 6-10 or taller. Illinois has one, 6-11 sophomore Nnanna Egwu.
That size and Miami’s overall success are the kinds of things that would have some coaches constantly drinking coffee while trying to figure out what to do.
“Well, I’ve stuck with my two cups. … I have a deal with my wife,” Groce said. “A few years ago when we were in the tournament, I drank a couple of pots. So I’ve tried to curtail it back.”
Watching the film of the Hurricanes, though, could be enough to keep anybody antsy.
“Really impressed,” Groce said.
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