Miami squeaks past Illinois to move on to Sweet 16

Christian Corona

For the state of Florida in this year’s NCAA Tournament, good things are coming in 3’s.

Miami became the third team from the Sunshine State to advance to the Sweet 16 when the second-seeded Hurricanes beat No. 7 seed Illinois, 63-59, at the Erwin Center on Sunday Night. They joined Florida, who also punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 with a victory at the Erwin Center on Sunday, and Florida Gulf Coast, who beat Miami on Nov. 13 and who became the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16.

“The state of Florida has great basketball teams,” Miami guard Shane Larkin said. “Florida Gulf Coast was a team we played early in the season and they beat us. A lot of people gave us grief for that. But now it’s just showing that they’re a great team… For us, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast being in the Sweet 16 is a great feeling and it just proves that Florida has great basketball teams just like everybody else in the country.”

Neither Miami (29-6) nor Illinois (23-13) led by more than seven points in what was a closely contested game throughout, one that sent the Hurricanes to their first Sweet 16 since 2000. With Illinois leading, 55-54, Larkin stepped back and drilled a deep three-pointer to put Miami on top, 57-55, with a minute left to play.

“That’s the type of player that he is,” Miami forward Julian Gamble said. “We know he’s going to will us to victory. He’s our leader on the court. To know that we have him on our side and don’t have to play against him is a huge advantage for us because I would hate to have to play against a guy like that.”

Larkin finished with 17 points on 5-for-12 shooting from the floor and 3-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc, along with five assists. Miami, who got a game-high 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting and 5-for-10 shooting from three-point range from Rion Brown, will face No. 3 seed Marquette in Washington, D.C. on Thursday night.

“I kind of had a mindset of shooting that shot when I came off the ball screen, so I just had a lot of confidence,” Larkin said. “I just wanted to go out there and make a big play for my team and I guess luck was just on my side when I shot it.”

D.J. Richarson missed a three-pointer for Illinois on the ensuing possession and a loose ball was tipped out of bounds and the Hurricanes were given the ball. Replays appeared to show that the ball was last touched by Miami’s Kenny Kadji but, without the ability to review the play, the referees denied the Illini possession.

“You saw the same video that I did,” Illinois head coach Jim Groce said. “It’s a hard game to officiate. Both teams are physical, both teams desiring the same thing. 50/50 calls are hard sometimes. That’s how he saw the play in live speed and I certainly respect the call that he made.”

Miami went 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the game’s final 36 seconds to secure the four-point victory.

“How can you really determine whose hand it went off of?” Gamble said. “From the replay, yes, it did look like it came off of Kenny’s hand… I think being a referee is the most difficult job, by far, to not really affect the game but knowing that you have to call the game. In the heat of the moment, you see what you see.”