Rion Brown an unlikely hero for Miami; Canes knock off Illinois

AUSTIN, Texas -- A jubilant Rion Brown was headed down the tunnel that would lead to what was an equally-excited Miami locker room, but just before he disappeared, he spotted a contingent of Hurricanes fans just behind press row. So, the junior guard wheeled to his left and moved toward his newest pals.

He moved from side to side, slapping the outstretched hands that just wanted to touch one of the Hurricanes stars -- even an unlikely candidate like Brown. People hungered for that palm-to-palm contact with Rion Brown, the man who had started only six games all season and averaged 5.9 points per game while connecting on only 26.6 percent of his 3-point attempts.

But against seventh-seeded Illinois, Brown was a hero with five 3-pointers and 21 points. So was Kenny Kadji, who grabbed the final rebound to finish off the Illinois and who might have touched the ball the officials said bounced out of bounds off Illinois late in the game, creating an official officials controversy.

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And so was Shane Larkin, who nailed a 3-pointer with 1:00 to play to wipe away Illinois’ final lead of the game and then hit two free throws with 15 seconds remaining to send No. 2 seed Miami to the Sweet 16 with a 63-59 victory.

It wasn’t a surprise that Larkin was in position to succeed. His uncle Byron, one of the best scorers in NCAA history, said on Friday that Shane isn't afraid of big moments like that. Kadji wasn’t a surprise either, considering he’s the team’s second-leading scorer and tied for the top rebounder. But Brown? A superstar in the NCAA tournament? That really doesn’t compute.

“Rion is an excellent 3-point shooter,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “He is also very athletic. He matched up well with their guys. He got himself off to a good start, so we rode him for a good, long while.”

Locked in a tight tilt with the Illini, Brown -- who had accumulated a pair of 22-point games this season ... and only four other double-digit performances -- hit back-to-back 3s to give the Hurricanes a 46-39 lead.

The Illini battled back to take a 55-54 lead on a Tracy Abrams free throw, but that’s when Larkin breathed in his big moment. He came off a high-ball screen with about 65 seconds left and began his drive to the basket. But Illinois’ D.J. Richardson stepped in his path and stopped him. Instead, Larkin dribbled behind his back, took a step back and fired a 3 with Richardson’s hand in his face. He made it.

“I kind of had the mindset of shooting that shot coming of the ball-screen,” said Larkin, who finished with 17 points. “My team had confidence in me and Coach had confidence in me to call that play in that situation. I just wanted to go out there and make a big play for my team.”

That’s what Larranaga marveled at after the game -- Larkin’s decision-making. Whether he’s driving or passing or shooting, Larranaga said, Larkin always seems to make the correct choice.

After Larkin’s heroics, though, the Hurricanes also caught a break when a ball that replays showed bounced off Kadji’s hand was given by the officials to Miami instead of Illinois. After the game, Illini coach John Groce praised the officials’ performance, though he did manage to get in a, “You saw the same video I did.”

Kadji, for his part, said, “There were so many hands. I don’t know who touched it last."

With a different call, would this result have been any different? It possibly could have been. Instead, the Hurricanes went 6 for 6 from the foul line in the final 36 seconds, and after Brandon Paul missed his last-ditch 3-pointer with two seconds left, Kadji grabbed the rebound and held it to his chest as he celebrated with his teammates.

Larranaga, though, saved the best celebration for the locker room. After the game, he said he had asked his team to be fighters and that they had responded by channeling a young Muhammad Ali. Then, Larranaga did his own version of the Ali shuffle before knocking out the invisible opponent before him with a mean right cross.

The same way he hopes his team performs against Marquette in the Sweet 16.

“I had a blast,” Brown said. "The only thing I was thinking about was the Sweet 16. I didn’t want it to end for the seniors."

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