Miami can't get a break — or make a big shot against N.C. State

A year after having an electric offense, Miami struggles to score

CORAL GABLES

The shame of this winter for Jim Larrañaga, who built the most fascinating season in college basketball a year ago, is how the fear for this season, the No. 1 fear, keeps repeating itself.

Even before Saturday's latest example, Larrañaga was texted by a friend, "Good luck."

"That's what we need," he texted back.

And then Miami went out and lost another heart-wrencher to North Carolina State, 56-55, by the same script it constantly has this season. Needing a basket. Seconds to play. And its best scorers sat on the bench in suits, which is where three transfers wait until next year.


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A year ago, Miami was one of the electric offenses in the country. Now it's last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in points scored. It's also last in shooting percentage and second-to-last in shots attempted — meaning it doesn't take many shots and makes few of them.

So Miami needed a hero in the final minutes Saturday from a cast without great scoring skills. This is the position Miami was in at Syracuse, against Florida State, in overtime against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech and now was again.

"There's very little that separates two teams like this — one defensive stop, one extra possession, one made free throw," Larrañaga said. "A good example is [Miami center] Raphael Akpejiori."

With three seconds left and Miami down two points, Akpejiori muscled his way for an offensive rebound, one of 17 Miami had on the day.

"If Raphael tips that in, he's not fouled," Larrañaga said. "It's a bucket."

But on this offensively-challenged team, this rebound wasn't tipped in. Akpejiori came down with the ball.

"When he went back up, he was fouled," Larrañaga said.

He missed his second foul shot. That was Saturday's difference, as Miami lost by that one point and dropped to 2-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And that means college basketball won't be the talk of South Florida in the way it was a year ago.

Does anyone think Larrañaga is less a coach? He's not. This is the growing pain of taking over a program and having such a great season that the team's best player, Shane Larkin, vaulted to the pros.

Larrañaga remains as fundamentally sound and creatively interesting as a year ago when he won the ACC and had a run to the Sweet 16. He went to a defensive zone for the first time in his career to cover one team problem.

That's held down teams. North Carolina State, for example, was held to fewer points only once in its 23 games. But top scorers still beat up Miami. Larrañaga had Sheldon McLellan wear in practice the uniform of the North Carolina State's T.J. Warren.

That way, he figured, everyone would look for the ACC's leading scorer when practicing defensive sets. Warren still got 19 points in the second half Saturday to finish with a game-high 27 for North Carolina State.

"Our defense is not as good as their player's offense,'' Larrañaga said.

Miami has lost two ACC games in overtime and three others by less than five points. There are a lot of ways to cut them. But the simple fact is Miami's best scorer is Larkin's replacement, Angel Rodriguez, has to sit out a year after transferring from Kansas State.

"A great win, a tough win," is how North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried described it Saturday.

Miami framed it in a different way.

"It's tough, disheartening," guard Rion Brown said. "At the end of the day, we've just got to keep fighting. We've got eight, nine games [in the ACC] left. We can go out and win them all. Every game we're right there."

For a while, it looked like Miami might get out of Saturday with the kind of win it needs. They just needed a bucket in the end. It wasn't just a step too far for this team right now. It was the sum of this season's fears.

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