NEW YORK — The Miami Hurricanes were down to their fourth point guard. They had four freshmen on the court during one stretch, and players found themselves in roles they never filled during the regular season.
And yet it's April and banged-up, short-handed Miami still has a game left. The Hurricanes face Stanford on Thursday at Madison Square Garden for the NIT championship.
Coach Jim Larranaga wishes he had Angel Rodriguez and a healthy Manu Lecomte to defend Cardinal guard Chasson Randle, who on Tuesday became the school's all-time leading scorer. He would love to put 7-foot Tonye Jekiri on another Stanford senior, center Stefan Nastic.
But Larranaga can't do any of that. Then again, his players have often performed their best when the task was most daunting.
“We play much better when we are loose,” Larranaga said. “We like being the underdog. We like having to overcome adversity — and unfortunately we even like to overcome deficits.”
They rallied from down double digits for the second straight game to beat Temple in Tuesday's semifinals. With Rodriguez already out because of a nagging wrist problem and his backup, Lecomte, hobbled by a bum knee, the Hurricanes lost Jekiri to a concussion early on. Davon Reed had also tweaked his knee during the shootaround, but he wound up playing and playing well.
When Ja'Quan Newton, the third-string point guard nursing a thumb injury of his own, needed a rest, fourth option Deandre Burnett took over. Leading scorer Sheldon McClellan also ran the point some, which the wing never did until two games ago. And freshmen Omar Sherman and James Palmer were pressed into some critical minutes.
“Right now we are going to have a practice and I have to figure out which one of the guys is going to get hurt this afternoon,” Larranaga said Wednesday morning, only half joking at this juncture.
This is a team that won at Duke by 16 points but lost at home to Eastern Kentucky by 28. The Hurricanes seemed to play their best early in the season when injuries limited the rotation and each guy knew his contributions were crucial, Larranaga said.
The chemistry was rough at times when players got healthy and rejoined the lineup. Then Miami didn't respond well to the pressure when it earned a Top 25 ranking in late January.
Too many bad losses overshadowed the quality victories by the time the NCAA Tournament field was picked. But the Hurricanes have found ways to win since then even as the injuries piled up, and on Thursday they'll seek their first NIT title.
“We are constantly making adjustments, and the best part about the team is they are very receptive and understanding that this has been created by circumstance,” Larranaga said.
“And they are willing listeners and then going out and executing the plan. But leaving them in that right mental frame of mind of being loose and keeping it pretty simple, not making it too complicated for them, has really been a good formula.”
Like Miami, Stanford seemed to be well on its way to an NCAA Tournament berth in mid-January. But by the time Selection Sunday arrived, the Cardinal had lost eight of their last 12, plagued by their own injury bug.
Seniors Randle, Nastic and Anthony Brown account for nearly two-thirds of the team's scoring, and after last year's Sweet 16 run, motivation could have been hard to find in the NIT.
Instead, Stanford has reached the final for the second time in four seasons. Randle and Brown combined for 26 points on 11-of-20 shooting in the victory over Minnesota in 2012 (Nastic was a little-used reserve at the time).
“They want to play in the postseason, of course, like everyone else in the NCAA, and it wasn't to be. What I really respect about them is they didn't put their heads down,” coach Johnny Dawkins said. “They said, 'You know what? You earn what you get. We didn't earn that opportunity. We've earned an opportunity to play in the NIT, so let's make the most out of it.'”