Miami beats Clemson, wins the ACC
Canes play Friday at 1 in the ACC Tournament
Miami coach Jim Larranaga mounted the ladder last and went to the basket hard, scissors in hand. The net came off with one final snip, and he twirled it over his head, then draped it around his neck.
Down to their third try and last chance, Larranaga's Hurricanes came through Saturday. Kenny Kadji scored a season-high 23 points to help sixth-ranked Miami win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship outright by beating Clemson 62-49.
Then came the cutting of the net, a new ritual for Miami's program.
"It's a piece of memorabilia you'll keep with you for a lifetime," said Larranaga, who is in his second year with the Hurricanes. "It's something the players feel is very, very special, because you don't get to do it all the time. Some programs do it almost annually, but we haven't done that here. And when you do anything for the first time, it's very, very exciting."
Miami (24-6, 15-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) clinched its first outright men's basketball league title after being foiled by consecutive losses to Duke and Georgia Tech. The Hurricanes tied the school record for victories set in 2001-02, when they went 24-8, and improved to 14-1 at home in their regular-season finale.
The league championship is the second for the Hurricanes, who shared the Big East Conference title in 2000. Now comes the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., where Miami will be the top seed.
"That's not the last net I plan on cutting down," Trey McKinney Jones said. "The sky's the limit for us. If we play together, we have so many weapons."
Clemson (13-17, 5-13) has lost six straight and nine of 10.
After struggling on defense recently, the Hurricanes clamped down, limiting Clemson to one basket during a pivotal 9Â½-minute stretch to start the second half. Larranaga graded the defensive performance Miami's best in the past three weeks.
"One thing we really focused on was just being down in the stance, and going back to that very basic thing," center Julian Gamble said. "It shows how big a difference it can make, because we were a lot quicker getting to the ball and guarding guys who were driving."
Miami held a league opponent to 50 points or fewer for the seventh time. When it ended, Larranaga exhaled.
"I was less happy and more relieved, because I felt like we had started to struggle a little bit with our mental approach," he said. "No longer were the games as exciting and as much fun. It was more of a job.
"Today at halftime I thought the most important message to the guys was to remember to enjoy the process. It's not about what's at the end of the rainbow. It's about enjoying the game. And I thought we did that."
When Kadji sank a 3-pointer for a 55-41 lead with 3:10 left, the Hurricanes ran upcourt grinning at each other to a deafening roar from the crowd, dressed as one in white ACC championship T-shirts. The game was the fifth sellout this year for the Hurricanes, traditional cellar-dwellers in conference attendance.
After the final seconds ticked off, confetti rained from the ceiling. The latest hoops success in Miami drew a salute from the city's other title team.
"Congrats to them Canes on becoming the ACC Champs!!" LeBron James tweeted.
Kadji, one of six seniors playing his final home game, went 4 for 6 from 3-point range. He added 12 rebounds to help Miami enjoy a 35-21 advantage on the boards. His classmate, McKinney Jones, scored 10 points.
Sophomore guard Shane Larkin came off the bench for the first time this season and struggled early, missing his first seven shots. But he hit a pair of important 3-pointers late and finished with 11 points.
The Heat's James lobbied for Larkin as conference player of the year. Larranaga also offered an endorsement.
"I don't think there has been a more valuable player to any team," the coach said.
Clemson freshman Jordan Roper led the Tigers with 12 points, all in the first 5 minutes before Larkin entered the game and began to guard him.
"We just didn't do enough good things to win," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. "In the second half offensively we struggled a little bit. Jordan got off to a great start for us. They did a better job on him as the game wore on."
The score was 25-all at halftime, and the Hurricanes took the lead for good with a 13-3 run to start the second half. Kadji hit consecutive baskets, the second a 3-pointer. Durand Scott then scored on back-to-back possessions for a 38-28 advantage with 11 minutes remaining.
Larkin was scoreless until he sank a 3-pointer with 8:46 left. He made another one on Miami's next possession for a 44-34 lead.
Gamble's two free throws put Miami up by 13 for the first time at 51-38 with 4 minutes left, and soon the Hurricanes were celebrating. Gamble, a sixth-year senior, conceded he struggled a bit with the net-cutting ritual.
"The scissors we had might be a little dull," he said with a smile. "Those are the same scissors we use to cut off our tape every day. We'll try to have some sharper ones when we get to Greensboro."
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