Miami Madness: UM’s high-octane offense blows past Houston 89-75 to reach Elite Eight

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For decades now, since the University of Miami men’s basketball program was resurrected after lying dormant for 14 years, the Hurricanes have been toiling, often in front of sparse crowds, to gain respect and prove that Hurricanes can do more than play football.

On Friday, on the biggest day in Hurricanes hoops history, the men’s and women’s teams proved it, and then some, as both pulled off upsets to reach the Elite Eight of their respective NCAA Tournaments.

Coach Katie Meier and her gritty women’s team upset Villanova in the afternoon to make its first Elite Eight in program history.

Five hours later, Jim Larranaga and his high-octane Hurricanes blew past the top-seeded Cougars 89-75 to earn an Elite Eight berth for the second year in a row and eliminate the last No. 1 seed that was left standing.

Miami will play No. 2 seed Texas on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (CBS) for a chance to advance to its first Final Four. Texas beat No. 3 Xavier 83-71 in the Friday late game.

In the final moments of the Miami game, UM fans at the T-Mobile Center began chanting “It’s great! To be! A Miami Hurricane!” Never was that more true for the green-and-orange faithful.

Larranaga celebrated in the locker room with one of his trademark dances, to the Commodores’ song “Night Shift”, delighting his players. Wooga Poplar and Bensley Joseph then joined their coach in a line dance.

“He was a little stiff, but he’s still very mobile for someone his age,” joked guard Jordan Miller.

Miami guard Nijel Pack, who transferred from Kansas State before this season, led the Canes with 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 7-of-10 on three-pointers.

Asked about Pack’s performance, Larranaga said: “A joke. He was ridiculous.”

He then added: “I don’t know how far those shots are. People say to me, ‘What do you say when he misses one of those long shots?’ What I say is keep shooting. The guy is a great shooter. These guys are great offensive players. At one of the timeouts, I just said to coach [Bill] Courtney, we’ve got to keep scoring. These guys are tough.”

Pack had played in this arena before, during his days with K-State, and that familiarity might have helped.

“It’s a blessing to be back in this arena for sure,” Pack said. “My teammates found me early and kept me going. They instilled confidence in me from the jump ball. They kept feeding me and telling me to shoot the ball, and I shot it with a lot of confidence, and they were able to go in.”

Miami guard Nijel Pack (24) watches a 3-point shot against Houston during a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 24, 2023, in Kansas City.
Miami guard Nijel Pack (24) watches a 3-point shot against Houston during a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 24, 2023, in Kansas City.

Isaiah Wong scored 20, Miller had 13, and Wooga Poplar added 11.

Norchad Omier, the power forward with boundless energy, had 12 points and 13 rebounds.

“Omier was a tough hombre, a load” in the words of Houston coach Kelvin Samson. “That kid has been the biggest, strongest guy on the floor every game he’s played.

“I think what helps him is how smart he is. His basketball IQ is off the charts. He’s tough. He’s got great hands. His width — we played a lot of 7-footers this year. None of them bothered us. But this kid was because of how good he is. He doesn’t need the ball. His attitude is tremendous. He impacts winning in many different ways.”

UM forward Norchad Omier grabs a rebound against Houston during the Hurricanes’ Sweet 16 victory in the Midwest Regional on Friday night in Kansas City, Mo. Omier had a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
UM forward Norchad Omier grabs a rebound against Houston during the Hurricanes’ Sweet 16 victory in the Midwest Regional on Friday night in Kansas City, Mo. Omier had a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.

Sampson had plenty to say on Pack, as well.

“Obviously, they were a better team tonight,” he said. “We could just never get a foothold. The Pack kid, some of those shots he took are ones you’d hope he’d take. Problem is he made them. Some of those were Howitzers.”

All the talk leading up to the UM vs. Houston matchup Friday night was about the Cougars’ suffocating defense.

Houston ranked second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing opponents just 56.5 points per game. But the Cougars had not seen a high-scoring offense quite like Miami’s, a collection of cohesive lightning-quick guards who are lethal in transition.

The Hurricanes had scored 42 points by halftime and held a six-point lead at the break. They turned the ball over just six times all night and matched Houston with 32 rebounds.

Miami guard Isaiah Wong (2) drives against Houston guard Tramon Mark (12) during a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 24, 2023, in Kansas City.
Miami guard Isaiah Wong (2) drives against Houston guard Tramon Mark (12) during a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 24, 2023, in Kansas City.

Turns out Miami can play defense, too. Although their defensive numbers were unimpressive on the season stat sheets, the Hurricanes clamped down in March and swarmed the Cougars.

Miami collapsed on screens, trapped and by halftime had forced Houston into six turnovers while losing the ball just once themselves in 32 first-half possessions.

“I don’t know if they didn’t think Miami was physical, but I’m pretty physical,” Omier said, smiling. “I love physicality, so do my teammates so they had to worry about us just like we had to worry about them.”

Just like they did against Indiana in the previous round, the Hurricanes used their speed, athleticism and tenacity to overwhelm the Cougars.

Larranaga and his staff stressed to the players that they were going to have to pack the paint to have a chance at beating Houston. To get them ready, the coaches made a makeshift three-second lane with tape in the hotel video room and packed everyone in it.

“To beat Houston we have to have everyone in there, we have to box out and rebound,” Larranaga told his team. After the meeeting, everyone walked out, all 12 players packed into an elevator, and it got stuck. Firemen came and it took them a half hour to get them out.

“I told them today at the shootaround, our defense was too stretched out, you gotta be packed in like you were in the elevator,” Larranaga said.

They listened.

It was clear from the opening 10 minutes that this was going to be a close game, as the underdog Hurricanes traded leads with Houston seven times and went on a 7-0 run to take a 31-29 lead. Miami dominated in the paint from the get-go and made a trio of early dunks that ejected the UM fans out of their seats.

The Cougars ended the season with a 33-4 record. Miami is 28-7 and was making its second consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16 and fourth in 12 years under Larranaga.