The frantic finish is over. Duke is done making three-pointers. And the Hurricanes have the big victory coach Frank Haith was looking for. Perhaps, not only for this 2008 season and his team's NCAA tournament hopes -- but the kind you can brag to potential program-changing recruits about.
The ending wasn't pretty. Miami nearly let a 20-point lead with 13:36 remaining slip through its fingers. How mad would Hurricanes fans be today if Duke had come back to win Wednesday? But as it turned out, Jack McClinton's free throws with 1.6 seconds left was just enough cushion to get the Canes past the country's fifth-ranked men's basketball team.
"We knew the first five minutes of the second half were going to be key," Haith said. "Duke traditionally -- that's what they do. The first five minutes of both halfs, they really get after you. I told the team be prepared for them to get after us. I thought we handled that part of the second half really well. We attacked them."
How special was the win for the Canes? At UM, beating a team ranked in the top five has only happened three times. Once under Leonard Hamilton in 1999 when the Canes went on the road to beat second-ranked UConn and went on to finish 23-7 and make the NCAA Tournament. And way back in 1962, when Rick Barry was still playing here. The Canes knocked off No. 2 Duke then and then went on to finish 23-5 and reach the second round of the NIT tournament.
There's no question the Hurricanes benefitted from being on their home court and having a loud, supportive crowd behind it -- even though it wasn't a sellout (the boxscore says the BankUnited Center fell 330 fans short of its 7,000-seat capacity). At Duke earlier this year (where sellouts are tradition), Miami buckled under the Blue Devils loud crowd and home-cooking (The Canes were whistled for a season-high 31 fouls). Wednesday, all of that was on UM's side (Duke outfouled UM 25-24). And it made the difference. At times during the game -- especially during Miami's big 18-5 run in the second half -- I felt like I was inside the Orange Bowl for an FSU game it was so loud. For a night anyway, you felt like this might be a preview of the future. A glimpse if you will of the team and the homecourt advantage Haith says he believes the Canes can have down the road.
"When we took the job four years ago we knew the opportunity would come where you would have a top five team come play on your court," Haith said. "The atmopshere we had out there tonight was terrific. When we took the job we envisioned that was something that could happen. So, it was special to see that and special for these guys that are here on our team now to have that feeling. But we can't stop. We're still trying to build our resumé to make the NCAA tournament. There's no question this helps. But we got another big one on Saturday."
As I drove home from the stadium, I heard fans chirping on WQAM about the big-game Dwayne Collins had and how they're disappointed they hadn't seen more from Collins this season. Collins certainly had a special game -- he was 12-of-14 from the floor for a career-high 26 points. His reverse, finger-roll layups right before the half and right after the half were big time. But Canes fans have to realize Collins wasn't the only hero. Jack McClinton had 22 points -- including 17 in the second half. Brian Asbury had 12 of his 15 in the first half and helped set the tone for the Canes early with some big shots.
More than anything, Canes fans should be excited about the fact McClinton finally got the support he needed -- from someone. Usually, it's McClinton who has to do all the heroics. Wednesday, he had a supporting cast. Haith said last week he likes the fact he has a cast of characters who can play the role of No. 2 on any given night. Truth is, Collins is likely the best available guy to fill that role. He's got the best offensive skill set of any of UM's big men, not to mention the most athleticism. That's part of the reason Haith was hard on him -- even after Miami's best win under his tenure.
"Dwayne was outstanding," Haith said. "But Dwayne will tell you had one he should have dunked and he missed the layup... But he played like I think Dwayne is capable of playing. Now, we want him to go after it and have another performance like that. But he was outstanding. He was aggressive, he was attacking the rim. That's the post presence we've been wanting. That's the Dwayne we've been wanting."
Miami has five games left on its regular season schedule. It needs to win three of them to finish 8-8 in the conference (the mark Haith said last month he thought his team needed to reach to make a strong case for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid). They've got Maryland (17-10, 7-5) at 2 p.m. Saturday, a trip to Clemson (19-7, 7-5) on Wednesday night, back-to-back home games against Virginia (12-12, 2-9) on March 1 and Boston College (13-11, 4-7) on March 5th, before a regular season-ending trip to Florida State (15-12, 4-8) on March 8th. Regardless of their opponents records, finishing 3-2 won't be easy. Clemson and Maryland have both lost to the Canes recently and will be looking for payback against UM. Boston College has won 13 consecutive games in the series against the Canes. And FSU already beat UM earlier this year.
But after Wednesday, I'm sure the UM basketball bandwagon -- which piled up plenty of followers when the Canes were 12-0 -- will be all filled up again and believing Miami can at least finish 3-2. The question is, are you one of them?