The late Marquette University basketball coach and former TV analyst Al McGuire used to say, “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, wouldn’t it be a merry Christmas?”
University of Miami players, coaches, and fans can empathize with that sentiment.
If the Hurricanes don’t wind up with a berth in the NCAA Tournament, they will lament close-but-no-cigar setbacks like Saturday’s 55-53 loss at Louisville when guard Angel Rodriguez’ 3-point try bounced off the front of the rim in the closing seconds.
It wasn’t the first time the Hurricanes have had late-game breakdowns cost them.
Back in January, in a double-overtime loss to Virginia in their Atlantic Coast Conference opener, the Hurricanes didn’t even get off a shot with the score tied in the closing seconds of the first overtime.
More recently, they lost by one-point at Florida State when guard Sheldon McClellan missed a mid-range jumper and by two at Wake Forest when Rodriguez had a potential game-tying layup rim out at the buzzer.
It could have been worst. They escaped what could have been a devastating defeat at Boston College when the Eagles missed a wide-open layup with the score tied at the end of the first overtime. Miami then won it in the second extra period.
Especially a win over Louisville at this time of year, coupled with earlier wins over Duke, North Carolina State, Illinois, and Florida, would have gone a long way in making up for the 28-point thrashing by Eastern Kentucky and 20-point whipping by Georgia Tech the Hurricanes absorbed at home.
And it was well within their reach.
The Hurricanes jumped in front by 13 points early in the first half, were up by 10 at the half after holding the 12th-ranked Cardinals to just 19 points the first 20 minutes, and recovered from the near knockout punch the Cards delivered to start the second half regain the lead at 53-50 on guard Deandre Burnett’s free throws with 1:37 left in the game.
But the Hurricanes didn’t score over the last 97 seconds. Burnett, who also made a key 3-pointer after the Cardinals had taken a four-point lead less than six minutes into the second half, turned the ball over twice and Rodriguez missed from beyond the arc on their last three possessions.
Louisville got a basket from Wayne Blackshear to get within 53-52 with 1:20 left in the game, and then Montrezl Harrell hit three of four free throws in the final minute for the decisive points.
Game, set, match.
The loss doesn’t completely knock the Hurricanes off the NCAA bubble, but it does make things difficult. They are 17-10 overall and 7-7 in the ACC with four games left in the regular season plus the conference tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Of those four regular-season games, two are at home (Florida State and North Carolina) and two on the road (Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech). They likely will need to win at least three of those games plus one, or better two, in the ACC tourney, to earn a ticket to the NCAA’s Big Dance, a ticket they might very well have punched had they won at Louisville.