Cane Collapse

How Florida's only team in the NCAAs almost did it

On Sunday, you, dear University of Miami fan, watched the Hurricanes nearly claw their way past the favored Texas Longhorns into the Sweet 16. And as you did, you probably thought the same thing as everyone else in South Florida: Since when do butchers dress in black-and-white vertical stripes?

You'll be comforted to know that even the fans sitting in Section 219 of North Little Rock, Arkansas's Alltel Arena agreed with you whole-heartedly.

"Call a foul!"

"Selective refereeing...."

"That's about pitiful."

"The referees decided this one."

In the second half, when the shot clock wound down on a critical Texas possession and the ball was about to go back to Miami, a whistle blew — late, but early for the Longhorns' Christmas. A round of booing arose from the stands, and the fans bitching about the refs issued this call: "[Texas coach] Rick Barnes needs a date! Where are your chaps?" The bellowed gay-baiting confirmed the Canes had found friends in a place far removed from South Florida.

You must begin a couple of decades ago to understand how an arena on the Arkansas River turned into a veritable home crowd for the Canes. Sites don't get much more neutral geographically, but if there was to be a crowd favorite at Alltel, the calculus didn't favor our boys.

Back in 1987, Jimmy Johnson's Hurricanes shellacked the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. The Canes (and later Dallas Cowboys) coach, an Arkansas alum, won a national championship that year. Traitor number two, former Hog Butch Davis, steered the Canes to two more gridiron titles in the Nineties. Furthermore, as a number seven seed, Miami arrived in this year's NCAAs with virtually no national identity.

So the fans were ready to hate the Canes when they hit the floor for the first game of the weekend against number 10 seed and oxymoronic Saint Mary's, a Catholic liberal arts school in California.

One player who might have merited particular loathing was Jack McClinton III, a junior guard who has average 17 points a game for the Hurricanes. The hoops star earned first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors and led the Canes — picked to finish 12th in the nation's toughest conference — to an NCAA berth. He had the best three-point percentage in the ACC, as well as the most three-balls made.

But on the eve of the tournament, Sports Illustrated predicted McClinton's shooting would sink his team against Saint Mary's: "McClinton shoots Canes into early elimination."

Turns out SI was only half right. Miami came out looking languid and disorganized, and McClinton was positively gun-shy. You could have made the case that he was simply biding his time, except the first shot he fired, in the game's fourth minute, was a deep, rushed two-pointer that clanged off the back iron — a classic overexcited attempt.

Around that time, in two upper-deck seats that looked down on the backs of Miami's cheerleaders and mascot Sebastian the Ibis, this conversation took place:

Daughter: Miami is the Hurricanes, right?

Dad: Yeah.

Daughter: So what's up with the duck?

Dad: That's Oregon's. The Oregon duck.

Eventually it was decided Sebastian was, in fact, a pelican. These sorts of discussions took place while no one was scoring much. Then McClinton sat on the bench for about two minutes, and Miami managed seven unanswered points to tie the game. A few seconds after McClinton re-entered the game, a curly-headed Saint Mary's guard named Carlin Hughes stripped him and sprinted nearly the length of the court for a layup over McClinton to take a two-point lead at the 10:40 mark.

McClinton fired back. He slashed past Hughes and forced a shot — which his teammate Dwayne Collins punched in on the rebound.

The score was tied six minutes later, when Saint Mary's plugged two three-pointers in 32 seconds. McClinton put in a point-blank layup for his first bucket of the game with 3:36 before halftime. He added a couple of jump shots before the break. Saint Mary's was up 32-27. The Californians had outscored Miami 32-20 with McClinton in the game.

In the concourse, wandering amid the scent of roasted pecans, was a pair of transplanted 22-year-old Miami fans.

Paul McIntosh, who wore a white T-shirt and a buzzcut, and Luis Hernandez, sporting a Marlins cap and a Hurricanes tee bunched up around his neck, were hopeful.

"They're streaky," McIntosh offered.

"If we hit threes," Hernandez said, "we should win. If they keep turning the ball over, they'll lose."

Asked why he moved to Little Rock from West Miami-Dade, McIntosh explained he was compelled by the Air Force, which maintains a base nearby.

Hernandez had no such excuse. "I heard it was nice," he said. "I got fucked."

Then he reconsidered. "It's peaceful," he conceded. "Nobody gets shot. Nobody dies. It's all right."

The pair had no idea McClinton would pour in 32 points in the second half (the total number Saint Mary's scored in each half) on an assortment of driving layups, short jumpers, free throws, and three-pointers.

His final shooting stats — 12 of 19 from the floor, including 3 of 6 on treys, and 11 of 11 from the line — seem to indicate he played a calm, efficient game. The truth is that every time he had to attack, he eviscerated the middle of Saint Mary's defense.

The crowd, which had been mostly silent for Miami buckets and cheering every score by Saint Mary's, actually groaned with disappointment when McClinton threw an errant behind-the-back pass out of bounds.

Once the game ended, a CBS crew interviewed McClinton at midcourt. The crowd surprisingly booed with a lusty hatred. But it wasn't aimed at Mac. The Texas Longhorns, long rivals to Arkansas, were taking the court for warmups.

As expected, the number two seed Longhorns smeared the sacrificial Austin Peay Governors to set up a clash with Miami for a trip to the Sweet 16.

Arkansas fans just plain ol' don't like Texas. And plenty of other people just don't like favorites. So although Texas fans traveled well, they were outnumbered.

Early on, the Longhorns made seven of their first 11 three-point attempts and appeared to be turning the game into a laugher. They led 29 to 15 midway through the first half when McClinton nonchalantly buried his first three-pointer. Sixty-eight seconds later, he nailed another, longer shot. On defense, he mostly was stuck guarding Texas' all-everything guards — A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin — and crashing against center/lug Connor Atchley as he set pick after pick.

Being down 11 at the half didn't faze Hurricanes fans. "Very few of the teams we beat this year we led at halftime," said David Leshner of Miami Beach.

He stood in the concourse chatting with McClinton's father, Jack McClinton Jr., who waxed Yogi Berra-esque: "There's two halves to the game. We just have to win the second half."

The elder McClinton acknowledged his son often feeds his offense with what happens on defense. Against Saint Mary's, when he was grinding out points, that was an advantage. Too often against Texas, it looked more like impatience. After the Longhorns hit a couple of threes in the second half, McClinton grabbed a rebound and became a one-man fast break. But he missed a quick, contested three.

"Man," said a fan in the upper deck, "that guy's a black hole. If the ball goes in, it never comes out."

Indeed McClinton was cold, cold, cold. Then he scored his first points of the second half with five minutes remaining. It was astounding. He ran an obstacle course of screens, caught a pass, found himself triple-teamed, and still nailed a basket, cutting the lead to a dozen. Two minutes later, he hit a trey from the corner off an inbounds pass, and the lead was 10.

With 2:33 to go, the Miami star sank a pull-up three with two hands in his face. Then four free throws made the lead six with 97 seconds to play. The last of those he shot with the arena in utter bedlam. The Canes-lovin' fans were making some noise.

You know what happened next. At 47 seconds, the refs called a reach-in foul on McClinton that should never have happened. The game was as good as over. The Hurricanes fought back to as close as two points down with two seconds left, but succumbed 75-72. McClinton was bummed at the postgame news conference. Asked why he took so long to assert himself, he replied, "I don't know, man. It's just, I don't know.''

The nosebleed section put the loss into perspective. During that final, too-late run, a couple of fans peered down at the Miami pep section.

"Look at their cheerleaders," a young woman said, motioning to their washboard stomachs.

"They're jacked," her male companion replied. Then he marveled, "A whole other breed down there."

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