In the midst of a college basketball season so wide-open that a loss from a top-five team elicits merely a shrug of the shoulders, Sunday night appeared to be third-ranked Miami's turn to stumble.
Ice-cold from the perimeter and flummoxed by Clemson's swarming ball-screen defense, the Hurricanes could not get their high-powered offense going. They shot barely above 30 percent for the game, they committed more than twice as many turnovers as the Tigers and they trailed almost the entire second half.
That Miami managed to escape with a 45-43 victory to remain unbeaten in ACC play still seems hard to believe considering the amount of good fortune it required. Even after Kenny Kadji gave the Hurricanes the lead with a 3-pointer with 39 seconds to play, Miami was only able to make it stand up thanks to two unlikely defensive stands, the first aided by a blown call and the second by Clemson's incompetence around the rim.
With Clemson trailing by a point and 13 seconds remaining, Milton Jennings beat his man off the dribble and plowed into Miami's Trey McKinney-Jones as he attempted a go-ahead layup. Referees called Jennings for charging even though McKinney-Jones arrived late to help and was clearly still sliding his feet when the collision occurred.
A McKinney-Jones free throw extended Miami's lead to two, but Clemson had one final possession to either go for the win or attempt to force overtime.
First to try was Clemson guard Rod Hall, who attacked the rim off the dribble and had a clean look at a layup that somehow rolled off the rim and out. Forward K.J. McDaniels was there to snap up the offensive rebound, but his put-back from point blank range also missed as the buzzer sounded, ending the Tigers' upset bid in heartbreaking fashion.
Miami's victory ensures the Hurricanes will take a three-game lead over second-place Duke into the final three weeks of the ACC season. It also keeps Miami in good position to claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history if the Hurricanes can keep winning.
It will take better offensive games than Sunday's for Miami to maintain its spotless league record.
No Hurricanes player besides Kadji (12 points) even managed double digits, and starting guards Shane Larkin and Durand Scott went a combined 3 of 16 from the field. Some of it was poor shooting and poor shot selection by the Hurricanes, but credit should also go to Clemson for stringing Miami's ball screens out, preventing lanes to the basket and closing out on shooters.
Miami only managed to stay competitive because its defense was stellar and Clemson is as bad offensively as it is good at getting stops.
Besides freshman guard Jordan Roper, who sank 8 of 11 from the field, Clemson shot an astonishingly poor 9 of 45 from the field. The Tigers also made only 5 of 13 free throws, missing the front end of several crucial second-half 1-and-1s that could have helped them extend their lead.
Since Miami lacks basketball pedigree and wasn't expected to reach these heights this season, some are already citing Sunday's escape as proof the Hurricanes are a fraud. To put it bluntly, that's ridiculous.
Miami has clobbered Duke, beaten Michigan State and swept a pair of games against Florida State and North Carolina. By no means are the Hurricanes invincible, but they belong in the conversation with the rest of this year's talented but flawed top teams.
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