Norris' free throws cost Miami's Big East opponents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kevin Norris didn't get much beach time in Miami last summer.

Between his sophomore and junior seasons with the Hurricanes, Norris decided that he needed to work on his shot -- and his academic transcript. His regimen over two summer sessions consisted of a three-credit course in the morning, another at night, and in between, close to a thousand jumpers and free throws.

For his trouble, Norris got 12 credits in the classroom and a stroke that has brought Miami three buzzer-beating wins in the Big East Conference over the past two weeks. Without the clutch play of the 5-foot-9 point guard out of Lake Clifton, Miami wouldn't be thinking of its first NCAA tournament berth in 37 years.

"I just knew I had to work on my shot after last season," Norris said yesterday. "For us to be more successful, the team had to get more offense out of me than it has in the past. I've always thought of myself as a go-to guy. I'm the point guard, so I've got the ball at the end of the game."

Norris' heroics began Jan. 4, when he hit the game-winner with four-tenths of a second left in a 69-67 conquest of Georgetown at USAir Arena, where the Hoyas had a 24-game winning streak. Saturday, his free throws with eight-tenths of a second left beat Villanova, 61-59, in Philadelphia.

Miami returned home Wednesday, but the frantic finishes continued. Norris' two free throws with five seconds left beat Providence, 71-69. A 72.8 percent shooter in his first two seasons with the Hurricanes, Norris has missed one free throw in 29 tries this season.

Eleven Big East games have been decided by four points or less, and Miami (10-5, 4-3) has been involved in seven of them. Minus Allen Iverson, Kerry Kittles and Ray Allen, the conference is clearly down -- the Big East lost its first 12 non-conference games against Top 25 teams -- but the conference is balanced.

"We can't start sticking our chests out and taking a bow," coach Leonard Hamilton said of Miami's best start in the conference, which has gotten it a share of the Big East 7 lead with Pittsburgh. "I'm not as excited as maybe I should be, because we haven't proven anything."

Johnny Hemsley, a guard/forward out of Southern-Baltimore, is one of three freshmen who play regularly for the Hurricanes. The top talent is a sophomore, forward Tim James, but Norris, who should set a school record for consecutive starts next month, has been a constant.

It's a team trying to build a tradition where there has been none. Miami's NCAA tournament history consists of a single game in 1960, a loss to Western Kentucky. Rick Barry was an All-American in 1965, but the Hurricanes were barred from the NCAA tournament for recruiting violations.

A lack of spectator interest led to Miami dropping the sport in 1971. It was revived in 1985, but it's still a struggle to find basketball fans in South Florida, as the NBA's Heat will attest. The Hurricanes are averaging less than 2,500 fans, but they expect one of their best crowds tomorrow night (7: 30, HTS) against Georgetown.

If Norris keeps coming through at the end, that NCAA berth -- if not the fans -- will come.

Not so happy valley

Penn State is right back where it spent its first season in the Big Ten -- at the bottom.

With a new coach in Jerry Dunn and a new arena last season, the Nittany Lions had their first nationally ranked team in more than three decades. They shared second place with Indiana, their best finish in their first four seasons in the Big Ten.

Savvy forwards Matt Gaudio and Glenn Sekunda moved on and Penn State was picked to finish in the middle of the pack, even before its backcourt began to crumble.

Dan Earl, second-team all-Big Ten and a mainstay at the point the last three seasons, was forced to sit out this one with a severe back problem. His replacement, Titus Ivory, sustained a season-ending stress fracture in November. Freshman Ryan Bailey, the brother of UCLA's Toby, has had to play more than 33 minutes a game.

The Nittany Lions are 0-4 in the Big Ten, and next month's schedule includes consecutive road games at Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana.

Northern exposure

Think Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun might want to move Sunday's game against No. 1 Kansas from Hartford to Lawrence? The Huskies are followed by a media horde, and the scrutiny will intensify now that the NCAA is investigating possible rules violations at Connecticut.

Pub Date: 1/17/97

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