GREENSBORO — Down the stretch they came in Greensboro, where the action was comparable to the last turn at Churchill Downs.
The scene and the cast provided the league one of its best games of the year in Miami's first ACC championship after an 87-77 victory against North Carolina Sunday in the conference title game at Greensboro Coliseum.
In the end, the Hurricanes had the horses to run away from the rest of the league as the combination of tournament MVP Shane Larkin and Trey McKinney-Jones led Miami in a hostile environment, a short drive from Chapel Hill. Miami (27-6), chosen as the No.2 seed in the East region for the NCAA Tournament, went on an 11-2 run in the second half to pull away.
“They made great plays down the stretch,” UNC's P.J. Hairston said. “Trey (McKinney-Jones) and Rion (Brown) hit some big shots.”
Playing their third game of the weekend, the Hurricanes didn't yield to the break-neck pace UNC (24-10) wanted to play and came away with their first conference championship in history. For the 'Canes, holding off a Carolina team that hit 13 of 29 3-pointers was manageable thanks to 12 treys of their own.
“I thought the first half was about as high a level of basketball as I've seen all year long,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “I thought we played great. I thought Carolina was great.”
Larkin scored 28 points as did Hairston, who not only has recovered from a hand injury but seems to be peaking after two stout games in a row. Hairston hit six shots from behind the arc, including three straight in the first half.
“The thought of me having stitches in my hand stopped me from doing certain things,” Hairston said. “Other than that, I played through it.”
Miami's Durand Scott left the game after being elbowed in the back 26 seconds into the action. Scott returned for a more subdued performance than Saturday but still claimed a spot on the all-tournament team. Hairston and Reggie Bullock were the UNC representatives.
Both squads enjoyed a first half of torrid shooting with a tug-of-war at the 3-point line. The teams combined for 51 3-point attempts.
“The way both teams were shooting at the time was lights out,” McKinney-Jones said after a 20-point effort. “It was crazy.”
The Hurricanes defeated UNC for the third time, although not as thoroughly as the last meeting in Coral Gables that ended in an 87-61 drubbing. That result ultimately led to a lineup change for Carolina that put Hairston in the starting five. Sunday's game contained 13 lead changes and gave the Heels a sense of fulfillment despite the loss. Carolina was handed an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Every one of my players got better and that was the biggest deal,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Each individual got better in what we were trying to get them to do and that was the bigger story to me. The credit should be given to those kids that really worked hard to get better.”
Miami took a 44-41 lead into the break but the Heels came out on fire, getting a trey from Bullock and two straight from Hairston to lead 51-50 at the first media timeout.
Carolina led 65-61 with eight minutes to play, and Miami outscored the Heels 11-2 over the next three minutes. McKinney-Jones hit a three from the corner off a rifle pass from Rion Brown to put the 'Canes up 79-71 with 1:36 left.
As regular season and conference tournament champion, Miami seemed to compile a strong case for a No. 1 seed in this week's tournament but was denied. For a team that hasn't been a favorite all year, that's fine with them. Even as the league's top seed, the Hurricanes weren't supposed to march into the heart of the league's backyard and upend a storied program again.
“A lot of people were saying we peaked too early,” Larkin said. “But we stayed together and got three wins in a row against very tough teams, and it's given us a lot of momentum.”