Once again, as they have so many times this season, the Miami Hurricanes took their fans on an emotional roller coaster Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and rewarded them with a thrilling 63-56 win over Drake.
Miami, which trailed by eight with just over five minutes to go, rallied on the shoulders of Nijel Pack and Wooga Poplar, and closed out the game with a 16-1 run that stunned the Bulldogs and sent the Miami fans dancing into the aisles of MVP Arena.
With the win, the fifth-seeded Hurricanes advanced to the second round and will play the winner of the late Indiana vs. Kent State game.
The game was slipping away with just over three minutes to go, and UM senior guard Jordan Miller, who had struggled much of the night, gathered his teammates into a huddle and gave them a pep talk during the final media timeout. Pack also offered a few words of motivation.
“I was like, `Man, this can’t be the way it ends,’’’ said Pack, who led Miami with 21 points. “I spoke to my teammates, they felt the same way, and we drew some energy from within us and picked up our defensive pressure and put them on their heels and got the ball rolling.”
UM went into a full-court press, Poplar and Pack had back-to-back steals, and Poplar scored on both to close the gap to two points. Bensley Joseph snagged another steal and tied the game with 2:20 to go and Pack put the Canes ahead by two with a jumper at the one minute mark. They never trailed again.
Poplar scored 15 points and made three huge three-pointers.
“That was a heck of a win,” said UM coach Jim Larranaga. “I was so impressed with Drake’s defense. We had read about it, saw it on tape, but not until you play against it…We kept telling our players, `You can’t take a second dribble into the paint because they’re going to swipe it.”
The Hurricanes started the game with three straight turnovers, took an ill-advised three and missed 11 of their first 12 shots.
The night began with an emotional lift for Miami, as Norchad Omier was medically cleared to play. The Nicaraguan power forward, who has boundless energy on and off the court, was questionable for the game after spraining his right ankle in the ACC tournament semifinals a week ago.
The third-team All-ACC honoree was averaging 13.6 points and a team-high 9.7 rebounds per game, and Miami fans breathed a huge sigh of relief upon hearing their beloved big man would be starting.
“It was up to my coaches and trainers and doctors, I wanted to help my teammates,” said Omier, who had 12 points and 14 rebounds. “They work so hard and I wanted to have their back.”
But it quickly became apparent that Omier’s presence alone was not enough to beat Drake. Omier put up five points and five rebounds in the first seven minutes, but the rest of the Hurricanes were ice cold.
ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong and second-team all-league guard Miller, veteran team leaders known for their composure and shot making, looked nervous. The guard duo was stifled by Drake’s defense and combined for just one point in the first half on 0-of-8 shooting.
The Hurricanes were fortunate to still be in the game, trailing 9-8 with 10 minutes remaining in the first half as the Bulldogs were also struggling with their offense.
Pack nailed a three and led an 8-0 Miami run to briefly give the Hurricanes the edge. But Drake then went on a 9-0 run to retake the lead and energize the Bulldogs’ fans, who outnumbered Miami’s.
“REEEEELAXXXX!!!!!” one front-row UM fan with a booming voice screamed over and over toward the Miami bench, echoing the sentiments of the other Hurricane fans at the MVP Arena and watching on T.V.
Just when it looked like the Bulldogs were about to open up a wider lead, Pack hit another three and then Poplar took matters into his own hands. The sophomore guard made a trio of three-pointers to level the score at 25-25 with just over two minutes to go before the break.
“We made some adjustments and the players really rallied,” Larranaga said. “Norchad was a monster on the boards and Wooga and Nijel were just sensational at the offensive end. It takes a lot to survive, and we fortunately survived.”
Despite Omier’s inside presence, the Bulldogs outscored UM 26-10 in the paint.
The Hurricanes had no answer for Drake forward Darnell Brodie. The 6-10 and 275-pound senior ended the night as with a season-high 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds.
Drake’s leading scorer, Hunter DeVries, was held to three points on 1-of-13 shooting. The son of coach Darian DeVries, Hunter was the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and had averaged 19 points.
“We’ve been in so many close games and this is just another one of those nights,” Larranaga said. “So many strange things can happen. I didn’t know we would win until I heard the final horn.”
This story was originally published March 17, 2023, 11:25 PM.