It had been a long while — 50 days in fact — since the University of Miami’s basketball team had been able to relax down the stretch of a game.
Since posting a 27-point victory over College of Charleston on Dec. 30, the Hurricanes had won only one game by double digits, and that was by 16 points at Duke, where one never breaths easy no matter the margin.
But Wednesday night they went on a second-half tear and routed Virginia Tech 76-52, pulling away from a three-point halftime lead with a dazzling display of defense that held the visitors to under 35 percent shooting and unselfish offense that saw them get credit for 21 assists on 26 field goals.
It augurs well for the five-game stretch run that could determine if they will make it back to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s absence.
“No question in my mind we can play better,” said coach Jim Larranaga, who had motivational speaker Ric Elias speak to his players before the game, “but I think from the 12-minute mark on — and I told the team this afterward — I saw the team that I think we can be.”
The Hurricanes shot 51 percent from the field (26-of-51) for the game (57.7 in the second half) and got a second straight 20-point scoring effort from guard Sheldon McClellan, who was 7-of-10 from the field on his way to a game-high 21 points to back up the 24 he had in Monday’s win over Boston College.
Center Tonye Jerkiri posted his sixth double-double of the season — all in Atlantic Coast Conference play — by matching his 15 points with 15 rebounds, and guard Angel Rodriguez chipped in 11 points despite making only three of his eight attempts from the field.
Despite the second-half runaway, which followed a tight first half that saw the Hurricanes go to the locker room up 29-26, the final 20 minutes had its moments.
Both Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams and Larranaga were assessed technical fouls just over a minute apart approaching the midpoint of the second period. Williams said he uttered “no profanity” or made any kind of gesture, and never really got an explanation.
Larranaga said only some things were going on he didn’t like, but refused to give details. He ripped off his jacket after getting the “T” and waved his warms to rile up the crowd as well.
Afterward, Larranaga said he couldn’t remember the last time he had received a technical, and the only other time he could recall taking off his jacket in such a situation was when he was at Bowling Green in the late 1980s and early’90s.
“It definitely boosted us when coach took off his jacket,” McClellan said. “Things got a little hot.”
Not that the Hurricanes needed it. They were already up by 13 points at the time on their way to a 28-point cushion with under four minutes left.
The win marked the first time since last month, when they posted back-to-back victories over North Carolina State and Syracuse, that the Hurricanes had posted consecutive victories. They won in double-overtime at Boston College on Monday.
While it improved their overall record to 17-9 and got them over .500 in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 7-6, it likely won’t have much impact on their chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But a loss to a team that dropped to 10-16 overall and 2-11 in the conference could have been a killer to that opportunity.
Now it’s a day off and then back on the road to play at Louisville Saturday.
“We’re trying to go 6-and-0 the last six games of the conference,” McClellan said. “Just take it one game at a time and not look ahead.”