GREENSBORO, N.C. – Six of the last eight teams to win the ACC regular season outright, and then the conference tournament, reached the Final Four. Three won the national championship.
You’re up, Miami.
“They’re really a big-time basketball team,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Sunday after the Hurricanes dispatched his Tar Heels 87-77 in the ACC final.
Big-time in every regard. Offense, defense, experience, coaching and a sublime point guard: Miami has all the ingredients needed to reach its first Final Four and, yes, win the national championship.
Granted, none of these Hurricanes has played in an NCAA tournament. But this team is 10-3 on the road this season, 7-2 in ACC roadies. And although Greensboro will be recorded as a “neutral” site, Miami faced hostile crowds in Saturday’s semifinal against North Carolina State and Sunday.
“You can’t expect to play in an ACC championship game, in Greensboro, against Carolina, and not get their best shot,” forward Julian Gamble said. “We got their best shot today and we were able to withstand it.”
“We’re a veteran group,” second-team All-ACC forward Kenny Kadji said. “These dogfights, we know how to handle them. We’re a composed team and a very hungry team.”
The Hurricanes (27-6) arrived in Greensboro determined to affirm their regular-season championship. They blitzed to a 13-0 ACC start before losing three of their last five and creating doubts about their legitimacy.
Led by All-ACC point guard and tournament MVP Shane Larkin, Miami answered in resounding fashion. Even as North Carolina (24-10) rained 3-pointers, the Hurricanes never blinked.
“It was important because we didn’t want people to think (the regular season) was a fluke,” Gamble said of the tournament. “We wanted to show people outright we’re the best team in the league.
“Duke’s a great team, Carolina’s a great team, and we have other great teams in the league, but we wanted to let people know we can compete and that we’re better than them.”
Message received, even more so because the Hurricanes bested an opponent playing at its best.
But when Carolina’s P.J. Hairston made ridiculous threes, Miami countered, often with a Larkin bucket or drive-and-kick to Trey McKinney Jones. When Marcus Paige slithered inside to score, Gamble muscled in a stickback.
The game featured 15 lead changes, 13 in the breathtaking first half. At one stage of the second half, after one of Hairston’s six 3-pointers, McKinney Jones couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
“Just the way both teams were shooting at that time was lights out,” McKinney Jones said. “It was crazy.”
McKinney Jones scored a career-high 20 points, made six 3-pointers and added three assists and three steals. Gamble contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds, Rion Brown 12 points, four rebounds and three assists off the bench.
Mix those role players with Larkin’s 28 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals, and you have a lethal combination.
“One of our assistant coaches was sharing a stat with me,” Gamble said. “We have seven people on our team that’s had a game where they scored over 16 points. … It just goes to show you, you have to pick your poison. On any given day, any guy can go off.”
But it’s Larkin, a sophomore and the Hurricanes’ only non-senior starter who makes them go. His ability to make shoot-or-pass decisions in mid-flight, and under duress, is a joy to watch.
“Shane Larkin is hard to handle out top, he’s phenomenal, he really is,” Williams said. “He’s probably the most effective player in our league. He just does so much to help their team and puts pressure on the other team. He plays hard defensively.”
“Incredible, man,” Gamble said of Larkin. “The kid does things I’ve rarely seen on the court. I’m his roommate, so I’ve had conversations with him about him being faster than (former North Carolina All-American) Ty Lawson. …
“He’s a sophomore. He’s still got growing to do. He’s going to become better. It’s kind of scary when you think what people have to look forward to.”
Miami now looks forward to the NCAA tournament. The program has only six previous appearances, with 2000 the lone Sweet 16.
But on the bench sits the wily Jim Larranaga, a 63-year-old former Virginia assistant who famously coached George Mason to the 2006 Final Four. Here’s guessing he’ll prepare the Hurricanes for all that March brings.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Gamble said. “There’s so many great teams in the country, and now you’re not playing teams in your conference. You’re playing teams you’ve never seen. It’s going to come down to coaching, and we have incredible coaches.”
Larranaga showed as much Sunday, going small with four perimeter players in the second half to combat North Carolina's wings. With Brown on the floor instead of Kadji, the Hurricanes finally slowed Hairston.
Kadji wasn't the least bit bothered.
“For a guy that age, he has so much energy,” Kadji said. “You can’t ever be down around him. Just an unbelievable character. It’s hard to put into words. The guy is almost magical.
“He took a mid-major team, no disrespect intended, with not as much talent to the Final Four. The guy can take us where we’ve never been before.”
Here are the NCAA results for the last eight teams to win the ACC tournament after winning the regular season outright:
1986: Duke lost national title game.
1992: Duke won national championship.
1993: North Carolina won national championship.
1999: Duke lost national title game.
2000: Duke lost in regional semifinals.
2005: North Carolina won national championship.
2006: Duke lost in regional semifinals.
2008: North Carolina lost in Final Four semifinals.
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