Ja’Quan Newton could envision it the whole way.
Before Joel Berry’s game-tying 3-pointer had even been corralled by the Miami basketball team for an inbound, Newton started to wind his way back to the baseline. The guard pleaded for the ball, got it and took off down the right sideline with 4.1 seconds on the clock.
He dribbled twice and gathered himself at midcourt as the clock was about to tick to zero. The senior let fly.
The first player to track down Newton was Lonnie Walker. The star shooting guard went for Newton’s shoulders and dragged him to the ground in celebration. Newton almost singlehandedly kept the Hurricanes from teetering to a loss in Chapel Hill, N.C., then sent Miami back to Coral Gables, Fla., with a win.
A half-court shot as time expired gave the Hurricanes their biggest win of the season, a 91-88 triumph against the No. 9 Tar Heels at the Dean Smith Center on Tuesday night.
“As soon as [Berry] hit the shot, I came around and I wanted the ball,” Newton told media at the postgame news conference. “I looked at the clock when I was dribbling up court and it said 3 seconds left, and I was just like, I’ve got to shoot it. And then once I shot it, it felt good coming out my hand.”
Ja’Quan Newton FTW pic.twitter.com/tC7ur4kzgT
— David Wilson (@DBWilson2) February 28, 2018
Miami’s rocky season largely has been defined by youth. The Hurricanes’ presumed best player during the preseason was a sophomore. Their actual best player through the first few months was a sophomore, too. Now, with Bruce Brown hurt and Dewan Huell struggling, Miami (21-8, 10-7 ACC) is relying on even younger players. Walker and Chris Lykes, a pair of freshman guards, typically drive the offense for coach Jim Larranaga.
Newton, during virtually every game, is the only senior to play for the Hurricanes, and his season has been as spotty as anyone’s. His 8.5 points per game are his fewest since his freshman season. He went nearly all of January without cracking double figures. He shoots 16.7 percent from 3-point range and 60 percent from the free-throw line.
Miami has had plenty of problems this season. Newton’s startling regression has been as big an issue as anything.
Even Tuesday, Newton had been mostly quiet. He entered the final minute with 6 points, but as the Hurricanes nursed a 1-point lead, he took command. The guard drove down the left side and made a tough fadeaway off the glass to stretch the lead back to 3 with 54 seconds left.
It was only the start.
North Carolina (22-8, 11-6) started fouling after hitting a pair of free throws, and the Tar Heels were content to hack Newton. The senior stepped to the line, with the added pressure of a 1-and-1, and sunk both. A possession later, Newton sunk 2 more in another 1-and-1 situation. Miami took a 3-point lead into the last 9 seconds.
“When I made the first 2 free throws I said I wanted it again,” Newton said. “When Joel made the shot, I was just running to the ball.”
Newton scored the final 9 points for the Hurricanes, providing the final boost the young team needed to secure its first top-10 win of the season.
Until the final minute, Miami’s trip to North Carolina once again was defined by its freshmen. Lykes led the way with 18 points and one highlight-worthy play after another. Walker added 13 points, including a trio of 3-pointers. The Hurricanes shredded the Tar Heels with their pick-and-roll offense, getting Huell free for 14 points and 8 rebounds. Miami’s 91 points were its most in a non-overtime game this season.
The Hurricanes, however, have run into trouble this season whenever the freshmen’s ability to create stalls. There hasn’t been Brown there to brute-force his way to the rim. Huell’s early-season flashes of ability to create from the high post come and go. Newton, once a spark plug off the bench earlier in his career, is now mostly a defensive specialist.
Miami can be good even without anything more from Newton — the Hurricanes are now a lock for the NCAA Tournament — but if he can be the old Newton, Miami can be special.