Miami basketball: Last-second shot ends Hurricanes’ season of missed opportunities

Redemption for Lonnie Walker sat 15 feet away. Fourteen seconds earlier, a desperation reach left Walker dumbfounded as the ball bounced off his leg and rolled out of bounds for Miami basketball’s 16th turnover. Two misses by Loyola-Chicago on the ensuing possession, though, gave the Hurricanes a chance to escape the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday with a win, anyway. All Walker had to do was drop in a pair of free throws.

Loyola’s seventh foul sent Walker to the free-throw line for a 1-and-1. With the Hurricanes up 1, his first attempt hung on the rim for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually about 2 seconds. It fell, the Ramblers grabbed the rebound and charged down the court with 9.3 seconds remaining, and as the clock raced to zero, Donte Ingram set up with his heels on the Tournament logo. He pulled up for the 3-pointer and became this March Madness’ first hero. Loyola snatched a 64-62 win away from Miami.

“It’s definitely a dagger to the heart,” Walker told reporters during a postgame news conference. “It for sure hurts because your teammates, such as Ja’Quan [Newton], who’s a senior — you come to the realization it’s your last game with them.”

While the Ramblers’ bench poured on to the court to envelop Ingram in a mass of bodies, the defeated Hurricanes lay strewn across the American Airlines Center. Chris Lykes looked straight at the floor with his hands on his knees. Dewan Huell trudged back to the bench. Jim Larranaga stared straight ahead with each hand grabbing at the back of his neck.

Walker could just look at the spot where the shot happened. No. 11-seed Loyola only needed a layup to take the lead — or a single free throw to tie — and instead Ingram sent No. 6-seed Miami home by hitting a shot from 30 feet away only 9 seconds after Walker missed from 15.

This year’s iteration of the Hurricanes never exactly jelled, which is understandable for such a young team. Walker, a freshman, led Miami in scoring. Huell, a sophomore, finished second on the team in scoring. Bruce Brown, another sophomore, began the season as the Hurricanes’ go-to scorer before suffering a season-ending injury. Chris Lykes, another freshman, seized much of Brown’s ballhandling load when Brown went down.

The problem now is that half of the group maybe gone next time Miami suits up. Walker would probably be a first-round pick if he heads to the NBA draft. Brown might find himself taken early during the second round. The Hurricanes, a top-10 team in December, were supposed to make a run with this group before the stars all went their separate ways. Instead, Miami couldn’t make it past the first real day of the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s pretty simple to know why we call it March Madness,” Larranaga said after the game. “It was a close contest throughout, and they made the last big play.”

The Hurricanes had two major reasons to be hopeful entering the fall — their star shooting guards. Brown, a former Jordan All-American, positioned himself as one of the ACC’s rising stars after averaging nearly a double-double as a freshman. Walker came in with even more hype after playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game amid raising talks of lottery potential.

Brown’s season ended during a January practice. The guard fractured his left foot midway through conference play, suddenly thrusting Miami toward the bubble. The Hurricanes became even more reliant on Walker to be more than just a player who could erupt in spurts.

Miami couldn’t afford to survive with the way Walker started against Loyola. For nearly 10 minutes, the guard was basically invisible. He didn’t attempt a shot until the 10:29 mark of the first half. Before his shot, he was working on a trillion — no points, shot attempts, free-throw attempts, rebounds, assists, turnovers, personal fouls or any other statistic beside minutes played.

If this is the end for Walker in Coral Gables, Fla., it will be a performance he’ll try to forget forever. While he led the Hurricanes with 12 points, it took him 12 shots to get there and he committed the two most costly errors — the turnover and a missed free throw to keep the Ramblers (29-5) alive.

At times this year, Miami (22-10) seemed like a team which could be Larranaga’s best ever and capitalizing would be critical. The Hurricanes don’t have any commitments in the Class of 2018 and a looming FBI investigation will make it hard to find any last-minute additions. If they go to the NBA, Walker and Brown will have left Miami with moments, but not enough substantive memories.

“In today’s college game, there’s no way to predict at this early stage how you’re going to look next year with the number of kids that transfer, guys that go pro, injuries, recruiting,” Larranaga said. “What you see now would be great if we had everybody back next year. If we did, I’d feel very, very strongly that we’d have a great team.

“In today’s game, I have no idea.”

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