Guard Wooga Poplar scored a career-high 25 points as No. 24 Miami stopped a late La Salle comeback for an 84-77 win on Saturday afternoon at the Watsco Center.
The Hurricanes went up 18 points in the second half and led for all but 23 seconds of the game, but the Explorers clawed their way back. With less than five minutes remaining, Miami’s lead had evaporated to four.
The ‘Canes relied on free throws, making 11 down the stretch, to secure the win. Poplar also hit a crucial three-pointer at the 6:27 mark after La Salle had cut it to six.
“[La Salle] got up by 18, and not only didn’t they put their heads down, they kept fighting and coming back … and then we showed some resilience,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga said. “And Wooga’s 3 was the dagger.”
Poplar, originally from Philadelphia, went 9 of 16 from the field against his hometown school, and forward Norchad Omier added 23 points. Guard Matthew Cleveland contributed a team-high nine rebounds. The ‘Canes shot 57.1% from the field as a whole and outrebounded the Explorers 39-25.
But most importantly, Miami had only 10 turnovers.
“From a practical standpoint, we need to continue to build on this,” Larrañaga said. “Do a better job of rebounding, do a better job of taking care of the basketball and certainly do a better job defensively.”
Miami played a complete first half with only four turnovers, and the Hurricanes took an early double-digit lead as a result. Cleveland led the charge with tough fadeaway jumpers and exceptional rebounding. He had 10 points and six rebounds by halftime.
However, La Salle fought back and used two three-pointers in 39 seconds to cut the deficit to four.
Poplar responded with a spectacular transition alley-oop from Pack to jumpstart another offensive run, and Miami took a 45-33 lead into halftime thanks to just four turnovers and 57.6% shooting from the field.
That lead ballooned to 18 after Poplar’s layup at 16:57, but then the Hurricanes went cold. A three-minute scoring drought — part of a stretch where Miami made 2 of 12 shots — helped the Explorers storm back.
La Salle shot 55.2% after halftime, more than 15 percentage points better than the first half. Larrañaga attributed that to Miami’s inconsistent defense.
“They started making 3’s,” Larrañaga said. “And when they do that, our defense gets extended and then they can drive. We had a period where they drove to the basket, and they scored and got fouled or just got fouled and went to the free throw line.”
The Explorers eventually cut the deficit to four with a 3-pointer, but a 6-0 Miami run ended any hopes of a comeback. Guard Khalil Brantley led La Salle with 23 points, and guard Daeshon Shepherd added 15.
Miami returns to the Watsco Center on Thursday, Dec. 21, at 8 p.m. against Stonehill, which has only one win on the season.