RALEIGH -- There is still enough time for the Miami Hurricanes to turn things around and make the NCAA Tournament. But right now, these stinging losses -- like Sunday's 72-70 heartbreaker at N.C. State -- and a 12-game road losing streak in the ACC is weighing on the Canes.
"It's a melancholy mood right now," said center Reggie Johnson, who scored 20 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots and turned his play up in the second half to help the Canes rally from a 17-point deficit and have a chance at winning late.
"Everybody is hanging their head right now. But we still have a season to play. We're not giving up hope. Guys got to keep fighting at the end of the day."
It was the second game in a row UM had a chance to tie on its final two possessions and failed to score. Durand Scott, who missed a pair of lay-ups in the final 10 seconds of a 55-53 loss to Florida State Wednesday, had the ball stolen away by N.C. State's Ryan Harrow on his way to the basket on UM's next-to-last possession with 20 seconds left.
Johnson then had the ball stripped from him by Tracy Smith near the basket with under three seconds to go. A scrum ensued for the ball and the remaining seconds ticked away. UM coach Frank Haith said the final play was drawn up for Malcolm Grant, who led UM with 23 points and made all five of his three point attempts.
Grant couldn't do much. He was defended well. "When I came off the screen I felt I wasn’t going to get a good shot off because I felt he was crowding me and his length was going to cause a problem," Grant said. "But I guess I should have just put it up on the rim. I got it to Reggie. But those guys did a good job of swiping the ball and knocking it out of his hands."
Haith said Grant should have gone to an open shooter. "It was a double screen and they covered it up," Haith said. "[Grant] just went to make a play. I thought he had Rion Brown in the corner, he just didn't get the ball to him."
The bottom line for UM here is that they need Johnson to play at a high level or they have little shot at competing in the ACC. While Grant and Scott are capable of carrying the load when they get hot, UM needs Johnson to at least keep the other team honest on defense. Sunday, they were down 17 in the second half when Johnson snapped out of his his funk. After starting 4 of 12 from the field and struggling on defense, he made his final five shots and UM actually took the lead on a Scott layup with 1:04 to go. The last two possesions after that, however, were bad. The Canes never got a shot up.
"I knew once I got going, the guys would feed off me," said Johnson, who scored 22 combined points in his three previous games. "That's a responsibility I put on myself. If I'm playing well, I think the guys tend to feed off me and just get going."
Johnson insists he's no longer feeling the effects of the bone spurs in his right foot (suffered the day after the Duke loss on Jan. 2). But the truth is he is still not playing hard enough every time he's on the floor and he knows it. "A lot more energy," Johnson said of his strong finish Sunday. "First half I felt I was flat coming out -- cold air in my lungs. I just had to get over all that, come out and play harder."
The Hurricanes aren't running out of air yet, but they're getting close. North Carolina (13-5, 3-1 ACC) visits Wednesday night. Then, it's a trip to Virginia Tech (12-5, 3-2). Unless the Canes turn it around quickly, I'm afraid this season could spiral the wrong way quickly. That's not good for Haith or anyone on his staff -- especially after what we saw this past football season.
I'm not saying anybody should or will be fired. Kirby Hocutt has always liked Haith and has repeatedly told me he's happy with the job Haith has done. But a shakeup of some sort is always possible. This team was expecting to contend for an NCAA berth. They have to start winning some of these close ones soon.
QUICK RECRUITING NUGGETS
> Los Angeles Harbor College defensive back Byron Moore is expected to become a ‘Canes commitment officially later this week after visiting UM this weekend. InsideTheU.com is calling it a done deal. Moore wants to make the announcement himself, but Patrick Onwuasor, who made the trip with Moore and several other players from California, told InsideTheU.com Moore has already committed.
> Defensive end Anthony Chickillo told our Susan Miller Degnan today he reaffirmed his commitment to UM. Coral Gables linebacker Denzel Perryman said last night he expected Chickillo to do so.
> Here is the link to an interview I did recently with Hurricane Sports Nation.com about Al Golden recently.