NIT run provides inspiration, hope to Canes

When the lights dimmed and the public address announcer barked out names of the University of Miami basketball starters at the start of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden, coach Jim Larranaga felt emotions he never thought he’d get.

“I felt, ‘Man, this is fantastic for my team, our players, our fans, our cheerleaders,” Larranaga said. “Playing in the world’s most famous arena.’ “

And almost winning the whole thing. The Hurricanes were just a Sheldon McClellan 3-pointer from winning the NIT on Thursday night.

Final: Stanford 66, Miami 64 in overtime.

”I know our guys are very, very disappointed, but I told them I love them,” Larranaga said. ”I’m very, very proud of them. They did a fantastic job. This last three weeks has been a blast.”

Miami (25-13) nearly made it three games in a row where they rallied from double digits to win.

The Hurricanes overcame an 18-point deficit on the road to win at Richmond 63-61 to reach the NIT semifinals.

They came back from 11 points down to beat Temple 60-57 to reach the championship game.

And they rallied from a 13-point deficit to lead Stanford in regulation and overtime.

More than once, analyst Bob Knight – broadcasting his last game for ESPN – said Miami had the upper hand.

“I’ve learned they like making my life more difficult,” Larranaga said. “It’s very, very challenging. When you get behind, you have to press the right buttons.

“What the guys learned is that if they keep playing hard on the defensive end of the floor and share the ball on offense, you can enjoy success.”

Miami made these comebacks and made this run despite numerous injuries. In April 2nd’s championship game, they once again played without starting point guard Angel Rodriguez (wrist) while center Tonye Jekiri (concussion) was out after taking a shot to the nose in the NIT semis.

Backup point guard Manu Lecomte (knee) played only five minutes, none after halftime. Guard Ja’Quan Newton tore a ligament in his thumb.

Guard Davon Reed tweeked his knee in a shoot-around, yet played a team-high 40 minutes against the Cardinal. Even center Ivan Uceda Cruz had to leave the game after taking an accidental shot to his nose.

Larranaga joked that most of the sight-seeing was done in the trainer’s room because of all the injuries. At times he had to go with his fourth option at point guard. McClellan, who never had played point in the regular season, played some in the NIT.

What it forced him and his players to do was adapt and simplify things, something he thought they did well.

“We had to play like we do in the summertime,” he said. “Ignore the mistakes, the missed shots. Enjoy competing.”

For a team that began the season with nine new players, the NIT not only gave them extra games, but valuable tournament experience.

At one time, Miami had four freshmen – Newton, Deandre Burnett, James Palmer, Omar Sherman – on the floor.

Two sophomores – Reed, Lecomte – also saw a lot of action. Those players accounted for 44 of the team’s points in the title game.

This experience should be huge for the coming years.

The past six NIT runners-up – SMU, Iowa, Minnesota, Alabama, North Carolina and Baylor – made the NCAA Tournament the following season. In addition, Wichita State has made four straight NCAAs after winning the NIT title in 2011.

”At first I don’t think honestly our team was even willing to play in the NIT, but we saw as the games went on that we could really win this thing and everybody bought in,” Reed said. ”We just grinded out game by game. So I think we know what it feels like to play postseason now, and we’ll take a huge step in the right direction for next year.”

Larranga played for Providence in a game against then Lew Alcindor – now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – and UCLA as well as North Carolina in the NIT.

Now he has brought a team he coached to MSG.

Wonderful memories.

It also could be a wonderful base to build on for future years.

“Lot of electricity,” Larranaga said. “Lots at stake.”