As mutli-colored confetti rained down on the Greensboro Coliseum, Miami’s players huddled at midcourt, smiling wide and embracing as time ran out.
The Hurricanes, a team known for its size across the front-line, had secured the school’s first ACC Tournament championship by becoming up big when coach Jim Larranaga decided to go small.
Trying to counter the Tar Heels’ smaller but quicker lineup, Larranaga decided to go with three and sometimes four guards. It worked as the Hurricanes pulled away late to prevail 87-77 after a wild duel that included 15 lead changes, 13 in the first half, and the teams bombing away for a tournament-record 25 baskets from 3-point range.
Miami, the No. 1 seed, improved to 27-6. UNC dropped to 24-10. Shane Larkin, arguably the best point guard in the conference, led the Miami charge, bombing away for 28 points. And when he wasn’t scoring, he dished seven assists and also came up with two steals — a statistical combination that earned him tournament MVP honors.
“Some of you think you realize how quick he is, but until you are defending him, it is just a different level of quickness,” said UNC point guard Marcus Paige, who was assigned to Larkin. “He’s a complete guard. He’s not selfish. He attacks. He finds the open man. He’s had as good of a year as any guard in the country. It was the toughest matchup for me all year and we had guys help. A lot of teams struggled defending him and we did, too.”
Trey McKinney-Jones added 20 points that included six buckets from 3 point range, offsetting the ineffectiveness of Durand Scott, who hurt his back in the opening minute and managed only six points a day after dropping 32 on N.C. State. Rion Brown came off the bench to score 12 while forward Julian Gamble added 11.
“We had to make some adjustments because Carolina is so good at shooting the three we went to a small lineup with Durand, Shane, Trey and Rion,” Larranaga said. “We were able to match up a little bit better and do some switching. That didn’t seem to really cause them many problems but it ended up we were scoring so effectively at our end as well. We were shooting the three about as well as they were.”
Larkin didn’t mind the switch.
“Going small, it’s fun out there,” Larkin, the son of Hall of Fame baseball player Barry Larkin, said. “It gives us more opportunity to spread the court out, get easier drives and kick outs.”
P.J. Hairston, with his injured left hand still taped, matched Larkin with 28 points (including six 3s) and put the Tar Heels up 67-64 when he hit a layup with 7:30 to go.
Miami used an 8-0 spurt to go up by five, and after Carolina trimmed it to three for the final time at 74-71, the Hurricanes went on a 9-2 run to go up by 10 at 83-73.
Gamble started the first run with a layup. McKinney-Jones canned a 3, Gamble hit a free throw and came up with a follow shot.
Hairston misfired twice during the stretch. One of the shots, a 3-point attempt, looked as if it would go in and then bounced out of the basket.
“We had a mix up on an out of bounds defense and they don’t have to make the three from the corner, but they made the three from the corner,” Williams said.” We came down and the next possession, P.J.’s shot, came all the way down and all the way back out. My team was aggressive, attentive, and yes we made a couple of mistakes, but that’s the game of basketball.”
Hairston didn’t score at all down the stretch.
“They adjusted and went smaller to match up with us, they put Brown at the power forward, and Gamble in at the 5,” Hariston said. “They were basically switching everything, trying to keep a smaller defender on me and stay under me and trying to make it hard for me to get a shot.”