March 25, 2008
CORAL GABLES Miami senior Anthony King sat in front of his locker at Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., with his head down while tugging at his shirt. He didn't want to face any reporters.
They were all set to ask him how it felt to almost pull off an upset against Texas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. When the question was asked, King raised his head and offered his thoughts.
"You don't get satisfied for just battling back," King said. "You get satisfied for winning. I don't know anybody who plays a sport and is satisfied for battling back and making the game close."
Like the rest of the Hurricanes, King wasn't ready to settle for a moral victory after nearly defeating the Longhorns. The first-round NCAA win over St. Mary's was nice, but this UM team wanted more.
Picked to finish last in the ACC, Miami was viewed as the underdog all season. Everyone, including the fans and media, ultimately saw the Hurricanes as a feel-good story. This type of success, after all, wasn't expected by anyone.
Well, except the Hurricanes.
"We should've won," King said. "We had the game."
When the Hurricanes' magical season came to an end, the general feeling was that they simply had run out of time. They got off to a slow start before making a furious rally in the final four minutes. It just wasn't enough.
Miami had one last chance to force overtime, but Ray Hicks' long inbounds pass with 1.8 seconds remaining was tipped away by Texas defenders, allowing the Longhorns to escape with a 75-72 victory.
After the game, the Hurricanes showed the look of a team that wasn't just happy to be there.
Star guard Jack McClinton, normally talkative with reporters, was nearly mute because of his disappointment. Junior forward Dwayne Collins, who struggled throughout the tournament, declined to speak.
Those were signs that even though all of the NCAA stuff was new to them, failing was not what they expected.
"We've tasted the NCAA," junior forward Jimmy Graham said, "and next year hopefully we can taste it again."
Fourth-year Miami coach Frank Haith, who broke through after three mediocre (16-13, 18-16, 12-20) seasons in Coral Gables, said the Texas loss won't spoil an otherwise successful year.
"I think we had a tremendous year," Haith said. "This ballclub has been doubted all year. All the negative stuff has been said about this team, even as the season started. These guys were never phased by that."
No, the Hurricanes simply continued playing as a unit, putting together one of the best seasons in school history. The 23 wins were one short of tying the school record, set by Perry Clark's second UM team, in 2002. That 24-8 club flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
McClinton, who earned first-team All-ACC honors, should become a household name next season. He gained national attention after one of the best first-round performances of the NCAA Tournament this season. McClinton scored 32 of his game-high 38 points in the second half of the win against St. Mary's, a team that spent much of the year ranked in the Top 25.
McClinton's story personifies the makeup of this UM team. He didn't start in high school until his senior year, and he was told that he could play only at the Division II or III levels. After a year of prep school, he landed at tiny Siena, before a coaching change and Haith's keen eye for talent got him to Miami.
Such moments, and the players' vivid memories of them, are why the Hurricanes played with chips on their shoulders all season. They felt disrespected, and they used it on the court to outplay some more talented teams.
"We just kind of play with a chip on our shoulder," junior point guard Lance Hurdle said. "We just went out there and played humble and hungry, just tried to work hard every chance we got."
MORE HELP FOR MCCLINTON?
As for next season, the Hurricanes don't want the respect they lack. They enjoyed playing with the chip so much, they want the same type of motivation.
"I hope people put us last in the ACC," Graham said. "I hope they do everything they did this year, and hopefully we'll do the same thing and prove everybody wrong. Regardless of where people put us, I'm going to have a chip. That's how I play all the time."
The Hurricanes certainly will have a legitimate chance to continue their success. King and Hicks, both seniors, are the only significant losses. And there's reason to believe that next year's lineup will be able to provide more support for McClinton, who sometimes was a one-man show offensively.
Four of the team's five starters return: McClinton, Hurdle, Collins and wing guard James Dews. Graham and wing forward Brian Asbury also have played plenty of high-intensity minutes at the ACC level, although Asbury just completed a disappointing junior year.
Miami also will welcome a strong recruiting class that features high-flying forward DeQuan Jones of Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga. This year's top freshman, point guard Eddie Rios, also figures to play a key role in 2008-09.
"We definitely made a big jump with making the NCAA Tournament, which I think will help us with recruiting now," McClinton said. "And we know it wasn't going to happen overnight. We made gradual steps. We made big steps, and now we're here playing in the NCAA Tournament."
But the first order of business at Miami should be snatching up Haith for the next few years. He is expected to receive interest from other programs in the offseason because of his ability to turn things around in Coral Gables. He needed just four years to get things headed in the right direction.
"The most important thing he does," Hurdle said, "is he believes in us."