In what could be the pivotal game when it comes to its NCAA fortunes, the University of Miami was without its team leader when it took on North Carolina in its final home game of the regular season Saturday afternoon.
Guard Angel Rodriguez, who was coming off his best outing in weeks with his 25-point effort in Wednesday night’s win over Florida State, made only a token appearance against the Tar Heels.
Rodriguez injured his right (shooting) wrist after falling to the floor while taking a charge late in the victory over the Seminoles, and though the junior transfer from Kansas State was able to finish that night and even make some key free throws to seal the win, he wasn’t able to practice the next two days or take part in the morning shoot-around before the game against the Tar Heels.
He still tried to give it a go but he was on the court only for less than three minutes against the Tar Heels, coming off the bench at the 14:18 mark of the first half and leaving for for good after turning the ball over with 11:23 on the clock.
Without him, the Hurricanes dropped a 73-64 decision to the Heels, a loss that puts them in a very precarious position as far as their chances of making the NCAA Tournament field.
“We’ve put ourselves in a very tough situation to make the dance,” coach Jim Larranaga said after his team fell to 18-11 overall and 8-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. “We’re going to have to probably win our next four games — two in the regular season and two in the tournament.”
The Hurricanes finish the regular season with road games at Pittsburgh on Wednesday and Virginia Tech on Saturday. Depending on their seeding, which could fall between 7-10, they will open the conference tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, on March 11.
Even without Rodriguez, the Hurricanes had their chances against the Tar Heels, who came into the game with a just one more win and one fewer loss than Miami but with a No. 15 national ranking. The Hurricanes are unranked.
Though Carolina led for nearly the first 29 minutes, the gap was never more than nine points, and Miami actually took a brief 48-47 lead on Ivan Cruz Uceda’s 3-pointer with 11:33 left.
The key moment came about three minutes later after guard Sheldon McClellan’s layup for Miami tied the game at 50-50.
“We really had put ourselves in a position to win the game,” Larranaga said. “You’ve got to give credit to North Carolina. Their guys really stepped it up and really did some things that we weren’t able to defend and stop. Then at the other end, I thought we got some good shots that just didn’t go in.”
That period of time also was when Rodriguez’ absence likely was felt the most. He has the ability, Larranaga often points out, of making his teammates play better, especially his backcourt mate McClellan.
Though both sophomore Manu Lecomte, who started in Rodriguez’ spot, and freshman Ja’Quan Newton, who relieved Lecomte at times, played well at the point in combining for 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting and handing out eight assists against six turnovers, they don’t have the chemistry of Rodriguez and McClellan share.
From the 8:49 mark (when it was tied 50-50) on, Miami was only 7-of-18 from the field and missed its only free throw opportunity. North Carolina, meanwhile, was 6-of-12 from the field and 10-of-11 from the free throw line over the same span.
“It was hard,” Lecomte said of playing without Rodriguez. “You can feel it on the court. I was trying to do the best I could running the point. I played a lot today because obviously he wasn’t here.
“We did the best we could as a team and me as a point guard.”
“It was difficult at times during the game because he’s our leader,” he said.
Larranaga said he is hopeful that Rodriguez will be OK by Monday or Tuesday and will be able to return to his starting role for the final two games. Even with him, the Hurricanes have face a big hurdle.
“We definitely have to win those two games away and then make a good tournament,” Lecomte said, referring to the ACC tourney. “We’re a team that’s had a lot of ups and downs, but I believe in our team. I believe we can win the tournament. It depends on us.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but I really believe in this team.”