RALEIGH, N.C. -- Two years ago, Miami senior Reggie Johnson said, his team wouldn’t have been able to win this game.
Two weeks ago, he wouldn’t have been able to win it for them.
It’s another sign that something special is going on with the mostly unheralded Hurricanes, who remained the lone undefeated team in ACC play (8-0) after the big man’s tip-back with 0.8 seconds left stunned No. 19 NC State 79-78 at PNC Arena on Saturday.
“I’m really, really happy,’’ said the 6-foot-10, 292-pound Johnson, who grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., and finished with 15 points and eight rebounds for the 14th-ranked Canes. “I could never have imagined this. We beat Duke, we beat North Carolina, we now beat NC State, and that’s something most teams won’t do.”
It was fitting that Johnson tipped back teammate Shane Larkin’s miss with his left hand because mere weeks ago, it was still swaddled in a cast, protecting the thumb he fractured during a late-December practice.
Early projections were that the big man -- who was averaging a double-double at the time of his injury -- wouldn’t return until mid-February. While many folks, perhaps, underestimated upperclassman-laden Miami’s ability to win without him, they also underestimated his quick ability to heal.
Johnson actually ended up returning weeks ahead of schedule -- Jan. 23, for the Hurricanes’ blowout victory over then-No. 1 Duke. He admits his rhythm was slow to return, as he averaged a somewhat-frustrating 4.3 points and seven rebounds in his first three games.
But then came Saturday.
With his team struggling to connect from the outside and trailing 60-52 to a perseverent Wolfpack team that was playing without starting point guard Lorenzo Brown (sprained ankle), Johnson accounted for six points during a 16-2 run that put Miami back in the lead.
Trailing by five points, again, with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left, Johnson's layup jump-started another late-game push that brought it down to the wire.
And then, with 0.8 seconds left, he gained position in traffic and tipped back Larkin’s miss over NC State widebody Richard Howell, one of the best rebounders in the league.
"I knew Shane was going to shoot it," Johnson said. "My whole mindset was: if he misses, offensive rebound. And I did it."
He, and the rest of his teammates, had a slight moment of panic when NCSU freshman Rodney Purvis’ desperation shot from three-quarters court almost connected.
Instead, the celebration began, with Johnson saying he yelled to the stunned State fans: ‘Appreciate it, y’all! Thanks for coming out! You can go back home now.’
Said Hurricanes senior Julian Gamble, who hails from nearby Durham, N.C.: “It was an incredible feeling to know that we battled back from double figures, [from] them basically having us on the ropes. We have no quit in us, we’re never going to stop until the clock is all zeroes.”
But credit the Hurricanes' experience. Miami boasts a plethora of seniors, including Johnson, Gamble (16 points), Durand Scott (18 points) and Trey McKinney Jones, who have learned from tough games, and seasons, and say they are now the better for it. It showed by their ability to avoide getting frazzled, to feed their big men late, to come up victors in the clutch.
The Hurricanes have now won nine games in a row and are one of only two schools left in the "power six" conferences who have a perfect league record (along with Florida).
"To come in here and win on the road, at NC State, that shows perseverance," Johnson said. “A couple of years ago, we would have lost this game.”
Instead, the Hurricanes made a statement: Johnson's groove is returning, and Miami isn’t going away any time soon.
"We’re having a special, special season," Johnson said. "And me being back, I think that just makes us stronger."