This story was written by Marcos Chisholm. Follow him on Twitter @marcosgchisholm.
It seemed as if for once, things were going as planned by Miami Hurricanes head coach Jim Larrañaga.
Miami’s defense was suffocating two of Virginia’s best offensive threats in Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite early. The Hurricanes were shooting 40% from the field in the first half against the best defense in the country. And they even took the lead in the second half.
Yet no other game this season has ridded any optimism the Hurricanes might have in March like their 46-44 home loss to the No. 22 Virginia Cavaliers on Wednesday.
As the game was tied 44-44 with 8.3 seconds left and Virginia (21-7, 13-5 ACC) in possession, guard Harlond Beverly fouled Kihei Clark, an 86.5% free throw shooter on the season. Clark would make both free throws, giving Virginia a two-point lead. However, Larrañaga was not telling Beverly to foul at that moment.
“Harlond thought I meant for him to foul as he was listening to me,” Larrañaga said. “So we didn’t get a chance to actually defend them in that last possession.”
The miscommunication between Larrañaga and Beverly was not the only setback in the final seconds for Miami (14-15, 6-13 ACC). DJ Vasilvejic attempted a game-winning 3-pointer that ultimately fell short, officially costing the Hurricanes both the game and better chances of a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament.
Against the odds, Miami still played one of their best games this season. Chris Lykes was giving the Watsco Center, and possibly the rest of the ACC, reasons to believe he is an overlooked talent during a year where no single force has conquered college basketball. Lykes’ 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting in just over 25 minutes were made possible by his uncanny ability to consistently create separation on offense, which provided a spark for a Miami team that was desperately seeking an ACC Tournament first-round bye.
Despite allowing a jaw-dropping 17-point first-half performance by Jay Huff, the Hurricanes still held a talented Virginia team to 46 points. Keith Stone, Rodney Miller, Isaiah Wong, and Sam Waardenburg all tallied at least one block while reliably hindering inside scoring opportunities against Virginia throughout most of the game. Stone also had four steals in an elite defensive performance, where he frequently found himself guarding one of the nation’s best players in Kihei Clark.
Wednesday’s defeat to the defending national champions served as a sobering reminder that no matter how competitive the Hurricanes appear in certain matchups, some problems of their season were unavoidable. Lykes, who already suffered a groin injury earlier in the season, received an inadvertent elbow to the face with 11:51 left in the second half, leaving the Hurricanes without their best scorer. And while Miami’s lack of depth proved to be a nonissue through the earlier phases of Wednesday night, it left an impact after Lykes’ departure from the game.
The same, predictable effects of Larrañaga’s reduced lineups reemerged when he was left to play freshman Harlond Beverly in Lykes’ place. Although Beverly finished the night with 6 points on 3-of-7 shooting, he was exposed on defense. Failures adjusting to pick-and-roll switches left him guarding Diakite in the paint at times, which created a mismatch that helped the Virginia forward score 11 points in the second half. Beverly tallied the second-lowest net rating out of Miami’s roster; Keith Stone, Rodney Miller, and Kameron McGusty each tied for the team’s worst (-5).
McGusty (13.0 PPG) and DJ Vasiljevic (13.2 PPG) entered the evening averaging more than 10 points per game this season, establishing themselves as Miami’s second and third-best scoring options behind Lykes. However, McGusty went scoreless on three shot attempts and Vasiljevic didn’t score until he converted a 3-pointer with 17:40 left in the second half. In a season where he has shown flashes of being a versatile self-creator from different areas of the floor, Vasiljevic mostly found himself spotting up beyond the arc against a Virginia defense that allowed only 16 points in the paint. He shot 25% from beyond the arc and struggled to find other ways to impact Miami’s offense.
Miami will finish this season winless against AP Top 25 teams (0-6). With Virginia Tech’s 70-58 victory over Clemson at home, Miami now falls to 12th in the ACC Conference with one game left on its schedule.
If Miami remains among the bottom four teams after its Saturday matchup against Syracuse, the Hurricanes will be required to play in the first round of the ACC Tournament on March 10.