On Monday, less than 24 hours after he pulled off the biggest win since arriving in Miami last April, Hurricanes Coach Jim Larranaga admitted he almost didn’t make it to Cameron Indoor Stadium this past weekend. Larranaga was so sick Saturday morning that he felt compelled to visit a local emergency room before hopping on the team’s charter plane bound for Durham, N.C.
“I was really happy I did,” Larranaga cracked in the immediate aftermath of Miami’s stunning 78-74 upset of No. 10 Duke on Sunday afternoon.
And yet it wasn’t the 27-point,12-rebound performance by center Reggie Johnson that had the former George Mason coach most thrilled. Instead it was what he saw when his new team flew back to South Florida that night – a bevy of fans waiting to congratulate his players.
“I thought it was very symbolic,” Larranaga said. “You look for growth in certain areas with your team, but also with the support of your program. The greatest thing for us is to get our students to rally behind our program and to get the students excited about coming to the BankUnited Center and filling up our arena.
“If a game like [Sunday] can be the motivator where the students start talking about our basketball team and wanting to be a part of it and feel the excitement, then they’ll turn out in large numbers and that creates the electricity in your arena, and then other people will want to be a part of it.”
This is the sort of optimism Virginia Tech will have to confront Thursday night when it visits Coral Gables, Fla. Though Miami still ranks last in the ACC in attendance this year – a designation it has held since joining the league before the 2004-05 season – Larranaga has the Hurricanes surging at the midway point of conference play.
Miami has reeled off four straight wins, and five victories in its last six games. The triumph at Duke was the Hurricanes’ first-ever win at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the second time in 17 meetings they have defeated the Blue Devils.
Perhaps more impressive it was Miami’s second straight overtime victory after beating Maryland last week. In both games, the Hurricanes squandered a 16-point second-half lead only to recover in time to score crucial victories.
“I’m very proud of them for executing under extreme circumstances. When you have a 16-point lead in both games, you lose that lead and end up going into overtime, it appears the momentum has shifted,” said Larranaga, who left George Mason this past offseason after 14 years at the Fairfax school. “You have to keep your poise and to recover and make some big plays and end up with a W is a major step in the right direction for us.”
Beating Duke, though, was the sort of signature victory the NCAA tournament selection committee holds in high regard and left Miami with a 14-7 record, including a 5-3 mark in ACC play. The Hurricanes, who also received a vote in this week’s Associated Press poll for the first time this season, have never finished better than 8-8 against conference foes.
All of a sudden, Larranaga’s bunch is squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, and instead of dealing with questions about rebuilding the program, the first-year coach is putting the focus on what is now a crucial stretch run to end the season.
“It’s a -game test. You don’t know what your final grade is until you’ve answered all  questions,” he said Monday. “It’s going to be the next nine games that really determine what kind of year we’ve had.”
The Hurricanes’ surge has coincided with Johnson’s return from a torn meniscus. After starting the season 5-4 without him in the lineup, they are 9-3 with him back.
The insertion of freshman point guard Shane Larkin, son of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, into the starting lineup four games ago has also freed up top scorers Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant to play off the ball in scoring roles.
“They’re just a really good basketball team right now,” Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said this week. “They play with a purpose. They’re extremely well coached, and you’ve got to figure out how you can defend them, because they can really score with the basketball.”