Furious Finishes Set the Final Four: Miami and San Diego State basketball

Fifth seed Miami came from 13 points down to beat Texas, while a foul and a free throw gave fellow No. 5 seed San Diego State a win over Creighton. They join UConn and Florida Atlantic.

Trailing and listless for much of the first 30 minutes of its Round of 8 game against Texas on Sunday, Miami staged a stunning, compact comeback in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament to claim the final spot in next weekend’s Final Four in Houston.

Miami, which won 88-81, will play Connecticut in its first national semifinal on Saturday. San Diego State, who beat Creighton on a late free throw on Sunday, and Florida Atlantic round out the field.

The Hurricanes, composed and tenacious, got off to a fast start but quickly fell behind the speedy, sharpshooting Longhorns, who were playing in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Texas crowd in the same arena where they won the Big 12 Conference tournament championship earlier this month.

Miami trailed by 13 points with 13 minutes to play, but the Hurricanes began to creep back into contention with a series of defensive stops and a series of free throws. Forward Norchad Omier coolly converted two of them to tie the game with a minute remaining.

Miami toiled, too much at first, but eventually with purpose, lacking the same ruthlessness that had seen them so convincingly dispatch top-seeded Houston in Friday’s round of 16.

Still, it made its late run just when it looked like the Longhorns and their burnt-orange-clad fans were ready to celebrate clinching home-court advantage next weekend. Throughout the game, with their team comfortably ahead and in control, the Longhorn faithful bounced to the team’s fight song and waved their hands in the school’s signature Hook ’em Horns gesture.

Miami ignored the crowd and instead relied on the relaxed, confident personalities of its key players and its famously optimistic coach, Jim Larrañaga.

“We called a timeout and I told them, ‘We just need to calm down and play better. There’s no big mystery about it,'” Larrañaga said.

Before the Hurricanes cut down the net of the basket where they sealed their victory, they dumped a modest pile of orange and green victory confetti from a water cooler on themselves.

Both teams featured players who epitomised the mobility and commercialisation of modern college basketball. Texas started four transfers, including hard-charging graduate point guard Marcus Carr.

Miami was led by Jordan Miller, a 6-foot-7 senior who scored 27 points and made a crucial steal with two minutes left. The team was also paced by two guards, Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack, who played this season in Coral Gables, Florida, in part because of lavish name, image and likeness deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When Miami had the ball on Sunday, it was often controlled by Pack, who scored 15 points by drifting in and out of the lane, soaring to the hoop for delicate finishes and stepping back for short fadeaways.

A win for Texas on Sunday would mark the return of the state’s flagship university to the top of the sport, 20 years after its last Final Four appearance. Interim head coach Rodney Terry has led the Longhorns on a deep run after Chris Beard, their first coach this season, was suspended and then fired following a domestic dispute with his fiancée, for which charges were dropped.

“I’ll love them for the rest of their lives,” Terry tearfully told reporters after the game. “I will be at their weddings. I’ll be talking to them when they have their first born”.

Miami, who also beat Indiana and Drake in the tournament, dominated Texas inside, shooting nearly 60 per cent from the field. The Hurricanes initially struggled to rotate on defence and get off screens to stop Texas’ 3-point shooting.

“I tell the players all the time, when you’re in games, whether you’re up or down, don’t play the score, play the game,” Larrañaga said.

Outside of the games, Miami has faced regular questions this season about the influence of money in its programme, with Wong and Pack two of the sport’s most prominent examples of the influence of new rules and state laws allowing athletes to profit from sponsorship. University boosters have been eager to subsidise winning teams beyond the athletic department’s budget. Huddled in their small locker room at the T-Mobile Center on Saturday afternoon, Miami players and coaches denied – some of them uncomfortably – that the new wealth of some of their teammates had entered the culture of this year’s team.

Do the higher paid players ever take their teammates out to dinner? Kotie Kimble, an assistant coach, searched for an answer he seemed to already know. “Hey, Christian, do any of your teammates ever buy you dinner?” he asked, looking at Christian Watson, a freshman guard sitting nearby. Watson said ‘no’ sheepishly. “No dinners. No dinners,” Kimble said.

Instead, the group describe their culture as “calm, together, relaxed”. “We all love each other,” Wong said after Sunday’s game. “And we’re all just here to stick together.”

Even with an 8-point deficit, Pack and Miller strolled onto the court for the second half, smiling and chatting. In timeouts down the stretch, even when they were losing, the Hurricanes looked steely as they listened to Larrañaga, who mostly paced the sideline with his hands in his pockets, rarely shouting or gesticulating like Terry.

After the game, Larrañaga marvelled at the way his players were taking on the role of leader, pointing out that Omier had taken to his dugout during a timeout on Sunday to give his team-mates instructions.

Some of the secrets of Sunday’s comeback may also lie in Larrañaga’s approach to mental health. He has become something of a behavioural guru, relying on Bob Rotella, a close friend and sports psychologist, for advice on how to keep himself and his team calm, players and coaches said this weekend.

Larrañaga, in character, was pensive in Kansas City. “I tell them that every day, over and over again. You have to go through life with a positive attitude,” he said on Saturday. “Life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent how you react to it.

His team’s late success on Sunday was one of the most significant reactions in the history of the programme.

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