Coming off two decisive victories to start the year, Miami defeated Florida International University (FIU), 86-80, even after trailing by as much as 12 points in the second half thanks to excellent 62% shooting beyond the arc.
Heading into this matchup, FIU had lost consecutive games by at least 17 points and were expected to get steamrolled by the ‘Canes, but in the first minute of the game, it forced three Miami turnovers establishing that this was not going to be a cakewalk.
“They were hungry. The way they play with the pressure … They play so fast because they are pressing and trapping even in the halfcourt,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said.
Despite the hot start on the defensive end for the Panthers (0-3) with its daunting full-court trap, UM (3-0) pulled ahead quickly thanks to a pair of threes from junior Bensley Joseph. That lead was extended up to 13 points midway through the first half after two triples from junior Wooga Poplar.
That lead was as high as 17 points for the Hurricanes in the first half only to be erased by a 9-0 FIU run sparked by star guard Arturo Dean, who led the Panthers in points, rebounds and assists heading into the break with his team only down two points, 41-39.
Turnovers were the story of the half for UM, who gave away the ball an abysmal eight times in the first half alone allowing FIU to hang around and eventually go on its run late in the half.
Some positives for the ‘Canes in the first half included outstanding shooting, going 7-of-11 from deep including six threes from guards Nijel Pack, Poplar and Joseph. Junior Matthew Cleveland also played well, as he was a consistent presence in the paint, contributing 10 points in the half.
When it seemed like halftime could not have come sooner for the ‘Canes, that was not at all the case, as FIU came out of the break as if it had never happened. Another 9-0 run ignited by Dean gave FIU a 12-point lead and capped off a 28-3 run that spanned over both halves.
A big reason for UM’s struggles was that it was missing star center, fourth-year junior Norchad Omier, who was in foul trouble almost the whole game forcing, Miami to be outscored on second-chance points, 24-2.
Down double digits the ‘Canes were in desperate need of a response and got just that with Cleveland, who nailed the triple that halted FIU’s massive run. Not only was Cleveland the answer to halt this run, he was the answer all night tying his career high with 23 points on an impressively efficient 8-of-10 shooting from deep, including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
“Seeing the game, seeing the court was really big,” Cleveland said about his improved efficiency. “Just understanding how to play and slow my mind down a little bit to see the floor better and see open looks.”
Continuing his excellent game, Cleveland hit another three to extend a 12-0 run for the Hurricanes to tie the game back up at 53 with 12:30 left.
After trading runs, the contest was tight with just under eight minutes to go until Cleveland and Joseph hit back-to-back threes to go up 10 points with just 5:56 remaining.
The Panthers managed one last run capped off by a George Pridgett Jr. three to cut UM’s lead to four with 1:30 left on the clock. Luckily for the ‘Canes, Poplar drilled a deep jumper to get the lead safely up to seven. Shortly after, Pack hit the dagger layup and Miami managed to escape this crazy game with a win.
Impact players for the Hurricanes were Cleveland with 23 points, Joseph and Poplar with 18 and Pack with 17. While only logging 24 minutes, Omier managed to still lead the team in rebounds with 10, followed by Cleveland with seven.
Next up for the ‘Canes, the team will head down to the Bahamas where it will take on Georgia (2-1) in the Baha Mar Classic.