Saturday, March 19, 2016

Rodriguez carries Miami into Sweet 16

Angel Rodriguez's career-high 28 points came two days after going for 24 against Buffalo, as Miami moved into Sweet 16 with 65-57 win over Wichita State. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

PROVIDENCE, RI -- As a student at Providence College nearly five decades ago, Jim Larranaga has more than his share of memories in the Ocean State that will last a lifetime, even sharing a few during his postgame press conference.

Now firmly entrenched at the University of Miami, Larranaga's youthful exploits may have come and gone, but his memory bank remains open.

Thanks to a career-high 28 points from Angel Rodriguez, Miami (27-7) became the first team to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, as the Hurricanes regrouped from blowing a 21-point lead, defeating Wichita State (26-9) in the second round of the South Regional by the final of 65-57 at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

"We challenged our guys to play great defense today," Larranaga said, "and I thought the way we played defense to start the game was unbelievable. It got us off to a great start, but of course, they're a terrific team and they made a run at us, and eventually took the lead. But these guys have great heart, and they really pulled together down the stretch."

Judging by the first eleven minutes of the game, one would think such a galvanized effort to lock down a close game would be unnecessary, as the third-seeded Hurricanes jumped out to a 27-6 start against a Wichita State team playing its third game in less than 96 hours after going through the First Four in Dayton and a grueling first-round contest against Arizona. Led by 16 early points from Rodriguez, just two days removed from a game-leading 24 points in Miami's first-round win over Buffalo, the 'Canes were the epitome of efficiency in the opening stanza after connecting on 12 of their first 15 attempts from the floor.

"Today, I just felt different," Rodriguez said in a somewhat revelatory moment. "I had a really good energy about the team, not about me, and I just seemed to come out on fire."

"He pretty much kicked my butt and outplayed me today," said Wichita State's Fred VanVleet of Rodriguez. "We gave him a really good start and they were making everything early. We fought back, but when you dig yourself a hole that deep, it's kind of hard to get out of."

The Shockers would not go away, though, holding Miami without a field goal for the final 8:29 of the first half to make their deficit at the intermission a manageable 13 points at the break, trailing 32-19. Wichita State would continue to fight back as the second half got underway, gradually whittling away at the margin before Ron Baker's three-pointer from the left wing with 10:26 remaining in regulation gave the No. 11 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference a 43-42 lead. The advantage was short-lived, however, as Rodriguez found Sheldon McClellan to punctuate an alley-oop that regained the lead for Miami, who did not trail again for the duration of the contest.

"We just kept saying, 'stay together,'" Rodriguez admitted of the message to the team as Wichita State made their run. "I was a little surprised that they came back from (down) 21 and got the lead, but at the same time, I think it was great for our team to be tested in such a way because from now on, it's going to be a dogfight no matter who we play."

Miami went on a 10-2 run after losing the lead, but true to the gritty form that has defined them over the years, Wichita State refused to fall over, pulling within two with 2:42 on the clock, trailing 55-53. But as he did at the onset of the game, Rodriguez found a way to come through when needed, burying a jumper and stepback three-pointer in succession after being held without a field goal for the entire second half up to that juncture.

"I have no idea," a candid Larranaga offered when asked how Rodriguez can be so explosive. "He has great confidence in himself, and when he's focused, he has the ability to play at a very, very high level. His biggest challenge is, he needs competition. When the competition is at its highest, he's at his best."

The Shockers would get no closer than two possessions following Rodriguez's dagger from beyond the arc, but nonetheless, they exit the NCAA Tournament with their heads held high.

"I just thank these guys to my right," said Gregg Marshall in his postgame press conference, pointing to Baker and VanVleet, "and all five seniors for allowing us to ride their coattails. They've taken us on a, what I term a 'magic carpet ride' for the last five years. What they've done for this program, this university, the state of Kansas, and college basketball has been incredible."

With the win, Miami reaches a regional semifinal for the second time in Larranaga's tenure, having first done so in 2013. They await the winner of Sunday's second-round matchup between Villanova and Iowa, to be contested at 12:10 p.m. in Brooklyn's Barclays Center, led by Rodriguez and his average of 26 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.

"I told the TV audience that they should rename the Dunkin' Donuts Center the Angel Rodriguez Park," Larranaga quipped. "He just owned the place. He was so focused, so confident right from the beginning of the game. He just had one of those games where he was totally locked in, very focused on doing what we needed done."

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