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March 18, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - After finishing first in the ACC standings during the regular season, Miami's players knew exactly what they wanted to do for an encore.
"We want more," said Hurricanes center Julian Gamble. "After we clinched the outright title of the regular season, we were talking like `isn't that the funnest thing you've ever done? We want to go to Greensboro and do it again.'
"We brought those same scissors and (now) we're a little bit more experienced at cutting the nets down."
Teams may hang banners for winning the regular season but the ACC doesn't pass out any hardware for the accomplishment. After taking the tournament by beating North Carolina 87-77 Sunday in the Greensboro Coliseum, the Hurricanes now have the trophy as the official conference champions.
And they won it by being the best team in Greensboro during the event. Consider that during Sunday's game, Miami got minimal contributions from forward Kenny Kadji and guard Durand Scott, hobbled by a back injury. Kadji played only 18 minutes and scored seven points. Scott, after scoring 32 points in Saturday's semifinal win over NC State, Scott managed just six in the championship but played a gritty 33 minutes.
So up stepped another guard, Trey McKinney-Jones, to score 20 points and make six 3-pointers. Up stepped center Julian Gamble to score 11 points, gather 10 rebounds and make three blocks. And up stepped Rion Brown, who came off the bench to play 27 minutes, score 12 points, grab four rebounds and record three assists.
"All our guys are dangerous guys," Gamble said. "One of our assistant coaches was sharing a stat with me that we have seven people on our team who had a game when they scored over 16 points. I don't know if any other team in the country could really say that.
"That just goes to show you that you have to pick your poison. On any given night any guy can go off; it's big-time players making big-time plays."
Of course, it didn't hurt that sophomore guard Shane Larkin continued his superb play, scoring 28 points and passing out seven assists to win the Most Valuable Player award.
"The kid does things that I've rarely seen on the court," Gamble said. "I told him yesterday that he's going to be the MVP of this tournament. He's a sophomore and he's still got growing to do and he's going to become an even better player."
It was the first ACC basketball championship for the Hurricanes, and the second straight captured by a team outside the state of North Carolina. Florida State won it last year in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Tar Heels lost in the tournament final for the third straight year. And that bothered Carolina junior Reggie Bullock.
"Hearing celebrations like that just make me burn inside," he said as Miami players whooped and hollered going down the hallway to their locker room. "I'm going to take that burn into the NCAA Tournament."
For the Tar Heels, that will be as the No. 8 seed in the South. They will open play against No. 9 Villanova in Kansas City.
"This loss hurts, so we're not thinking about (the NCAA) that much right now," said UNC's James Michael McAdoo. "The stakes are now at the highest; you either win or go home. Maybe this will light a fire under us."
Miami, considered a possibility as one of the NCAA's four top seeds, settled for No. 2 in the East. It will open against No. 15 Pacific in Austin. Duke and NC State were the other ACC teams to make the NCAA field.
After beating UNC, the Hurricanes said it didn't matter where they were seeded. They have believed all year that they play better as underdogs anyway. They felt that way Sunday, playing on a court where the overwhelming fan support was for the school just 50 miles away.
But to win, Miami had to play one of its best games of the year. The last seven minutes of the first half were scintillating, with the teams trading 3-pointers in a blinding array of shots. P.J. Hairston hit four of them for the Tar Heels but Larkin, McKinney-Jones and Brown countered for Miami.
It wasn't because of bad defense - shooters just couldn't miss. Once Miami broke a 24-24 tie, the lead changed hands on the next eight baskets made.
"It was kind of like a contest to see who would miss first," said Hairston, who had played many times on the Coliseum court while at Dudley High School.
Eventually, a little runner in the lane by Larkin ended the half and put the Hurricanes ahead by 44-41.
"I thought the first half was about as high a level of basketball as I've seen all year long," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga.
He told his team it would need to keep playing great in the second half, and for the most part it did. Although the Tar Heels led by as many as five points, Miami never lost its poise, a trademark of its veteran roster.
Larkin kept hitting shots and distributing the ball. Gamble, who spent most of the first half setting screens for the shooters, became a force inside with several dunks. McKinney-Jones, who had missed all five shots in Saturday's semifinal, continued firing away and hit a clutch 3-pointer from the corner with 1:35 left. That made it 79-71 and all but sealed UNC's fate.
"He's a cold-blooded dude," Gamble said of McKinney-Jones.
The Hurricanes also found a way to contain Hairston, who hit the last of his six 3-pointers with 15:25 remaining in the game. McKinney-Jones took over defensively and Brown also rotated over to help.
"They went smaller," Hairston said. "They took Kadji out and put Rion Brown in and put Trey McKinney-Jones on me and he face-guarded me the rest of the game. It made it harder for me to get touches."
Brown admitted that the defensive game plan didn't go well for the Hurricanes much of the day.
"Usually in the second half we start locking down on defense a little more," he said. "We definitely want to do that the whole game, but if you had to pick I would rather it be the second half."
Eventually, the Hurricanes took control of the game and closed it out. And they exulted in the spoils. Larranaga's wife wore a net draped around her neck in the locker room. Brown realized his dream of winning an ACC championship after growing up watched the tournament on TV with his father, Tico Brown, who played at Georgia Tech.
For Gamble, a sixth-year player who missed one season because he was red-shirted and missed last season with a torn ACL, it was especially sweet. The Durham native returned to his home state and emerged with a championship.
"It just feels good to have done it in front of my mom and my nephew and a lot of my family and friends," he said. "Just being back in North Carolina kind of put me at ease."
Carolina coach Roy Williams said he had nothing to complain about with the way his team played. He was so impressed with the Hurricanes that he went into their locker room and spoke to them briefly.
"He just congratulated us, told us we did a great job and we could go far in the tournament," Brown said.
And now, having learned what they're facing in the NCAA Tournament, the Hurricanes will see how hungry they are for even more.
"If we don't win our next game we're going to be done," Gamble said, "and we don't want to be done. We want to keep playing until the national championship game."
Just in case, they will probably take the same pair of scissors along for the ride.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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