Canes eye strong finish

Before the University of Miami men's basketball can start thinking about getting a little extra rest in New York and turning their attention to the Big East Conference Tournament they will have to take care of some business in South Florida- beating Virginia Tech.

The Hurricanes (22-6 overall and 9-6 in the Big East Conference) will host the Hokies (10-17, 4-11) at the Miami Arena, Saturday March 2, in their final regular season game of the season. Tip-off is at 2 p.m.

With a victory over Virginia Tech and a St. John's loss at Villanova on Sunday, the Hurricanes would go to the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed and earn a first-round bye along with East Division leader Connecticut and West Division leader Pittsburgh. Virginia Tech, last in the East, has been eliminated from the conference tournament and will not participate in the postseason.

Miami, coming off a 81-65 victory over Providence, would finish with a 14-2 record at home this season and post the most regular season victories in school history since joining the conference in 1991. The Canes defeated Virginia Tech 77-68 on the road Jan. 15. The Hokies, coming off a 63-49 win over Rutgers, have won consecutive games in conference play for the first time since joining the Big East. Rutgers defeated Providence 69-64 last Saturday.

"We can ride into the tournament and NCAAs on a winning streak and confident," said sophomore forward Darius Rice, who lead the Hurricanes with a 15.3 points per game average. "Who knows where that will lead us. I don't think anybody thought we could win 22 games or start 14-0."

Rice, who led the Hurricanes with 30 points and 10 rebounds against Providence, has scored 20 or more points in 10 games this season. He is shooting 37 percent from three-point range and is one of the top rebounders in the Big East with 6.2 a game.

Should the Hurricanes go into the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed they would open play Thursday, March 7 the winner oft the No. 3 West seed/ No. 6 East seed contest. Miami will not go into the tournament no less than a third seed.

After a 5-1 start to the season the Hokies have fallen on hard times. Virginia Tech managed just two victories in December and was winless in January, losing to every Big East opponent they faced. They have won of their last six games.

Despite the lack of victories, the Hokies have received well-balanced production out of their starting line-up, with four players scoring in double figures. Leading the way is sophomore Carlos Dixon at 12.1 points a game. Dixon, who is shooting 35 percent beyond the three-point line, is also averaging 2.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game.

Junior forward Terry Taylor, who provided problems for the Hurricanes in their meeting, is second on the team with a 11.4 points per game average. Taylor is shooting an effective 54 percent from the floor and has been solid on the glass (6.6 rpg). Junior guard Brian Chase, a 41 percent three-pointer shooter, is averaging 11.3 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game.

Forward Carlton Carter, who notched his 10th double-double of the season in the win over Providence, is scoring 10.1 points a game and has also been a force on the boards with 8.2 rebounds. Carter has 43 blocks and 17 steals.

Even with limited production off the bench all season, the Hurricanes starting group has maintained a level of consistency- they can all score. All five starters, including Rice, are in double-figure points. Salmons, who suffered an ankle injury against Providence, is averaging 13.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists a contest to further lay claim as the team's best player. Sophomore guard Marcus Barnes, who scored 12 points in the win over Providence, is averaging 11.4 points and 2.2 assists a game. Senior center Elton Tyler is averaging 10.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, while junior James Jones is at 13.2 points and 6.5 rebounds a game.

In the first game between both teams, Tyler scored a season-high 22 points to help snap a UM two-game losing streak. The Hurricanes, who went on to finish 2-2 on a four-game road trip, received 18 points from Marcus Barnes and 16 from Rice. Rice hit two three-pointes in the closing minutes to preserve the UM win.

The Hurricanes struggled with the Hokies zone defense in the first half as they were limited to jump shots and outrebounded 19-14. A lay-up by Taylor gave the Hokies a 23-15 lead midway through the first half. Miami would regroup to allow just one field goal in the final 9:18 of the first half to lead 34-29 at the half.

WATCHING US: The Hurricanes are 1-2 in nationally televised games this season. UM had previously lost to St. John's (ESPN 2) and Boston College (ABC).

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