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Miami looks to qualify for NCAA field after recent run

Miami started the season with a flourish, jumping out to a 12-0 record and a ranking as high as No. 19 in the AP poll.

The Hurricanes floundered early in ACC play, though, dropping six of their first eight in conference play, and appeared to fall out of the NCAA Tournament picture.

But now Miami is finishing furiously, and its four consecutive conference wins have made its midseason lull look merely like the eye of the storm.

The Hurricanes upset then-No. 5 Duke 96-95 Feb. 20 in Coral Gables before blowing by fellow bubble team Maryland Saturday, 78-63. The victories have brought Miami back to .500 in ACC play at 6-6 and into NCAA Tournament consideration once again.

"We have no bad losses, we have a good RPI and we have a good strength of schedule," head coach Frank Haith said. "I don't think there's anything in terms of our resumé that you can point to that would really hurt us. That's what I'm thinking, and we're hoping that's the way it plays out. But we've got four games left. Let's try to win all four."

Haith and the Hurricanes could put any doubts about their at-large candidacy to rest in their final four games of the season, starting at Clemson Wednesday night. Miami hosts Virginia and Boston College before traveling to Florida State the last Saturday of the season.

The Hurricanes have generated a rare amount of excitement on campus, as spring football practice has taken a back seat to basketball. Miami's game Saturday against the Cavaliers at the BankUnited Center has already sold out.

That's all due to the team's current four-game winning streak, during which the Hurricanes have won three games by a total of five points. Miami's excellent free-throw shooting-the team is 79-of-98 from the charity stripe during the stretch-has been a big factor in close wins over Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke.

Saturday against Maryland, the Hurricanes had only six turnovers-a season-low-and Haith cited improved point-guard play as one of the keys to the team's turnaround. Lance Hurdle and Eddie Rios have effectively handled the ball, allowing leading scorer Jack McClinton to slide over to shooting guard, Haith said.

On the other end of the floor, Miami has forced 74 turnovers during the four-game stretch, including 23 by Duke Wednesday night. The Hurricanes' 2-3 matchup zone befuddled the Blue Devils most of the game and prevented them from establishing an offensive rhythm until Duke's late charge.

"Our defensive pressure and intensity has picked up in terms of our activity," Haith said. "We're turning people over more and getting our hands on a lot of loose balls."

Miami will need to continue its solid play down the stretch of the season, as the Hurricanes have already learned the danger of growing complacent.

"We don't want to rest with where we're at," Haith said. "We know it's not going to be easy. We know these last four ballgames, everybody is fighting to continue to play late in March. Every team we have left on our schedule is going to be a dogfight."

But now, with only two weeks left before the postseason, Miami can see the light at the end of the tunnel and a potential NCAA Tournament bid. The Hurricanes' coach has not refrained from letting his team know where it stands in the bigger picture.

"I do [talk about the Tournament] with my team. I figure that they better hear from me because they're going to hear from somebody talking about the NCAA and what you have to do," Haith said. "We talk about it all the time with our guys because that's our goal: to play in the NCAA Tournament. That's what helps keep them driven in your practices and understanding what this time of year is all about."

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