Creating a Home-Court Advantage

Creating a Home-Court Advantage

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The final buzzer sounded, the post-game handshakes were exchanged and then, for many of them, the celebration began in earnest.

Isaiah Wong headed into the stands where he was quickly enveloped by an ecstatic, frenzied group of Miami students reveling in the Hurricanes’ 81-59 win over Duke. Norchad Omier and Anthony Walker joined the crowd, too. So did Bensley Joseph and Wooga Poplar.

The Hurricanes danced with their fellow students. They posed for pictures. They laughed.

And in their own ways, they took in a Miami moment that had been years in the making.

Sure, the Hurricanes have notched eight wins over the blue-blood Blue Devils in the 12 years since head coach Jim Larrañaga arrived in Coral Gables. But doing it the way they did on Monday night, in front of an electric crowd that made its presence felt from start to finish? That was something to savor.

So the Hurricanes did exactly that.

“I think going up there is our way of telling them thanks for coming out and supporting us,” said Omier, who had a game-high 17 points and 10 rebounds. “And it’s telling them to come back every time we play at home.”

Added guard Jordan Miller, “We see them on campus every day. We’re regular students, too. I feel like that puts us all in the same place.”

On Monday night, that literal place – the Watsco Center – featured a sold-out crowd that included 1,811 students.

The 19th-ranked Hurricanes are less than a year removed from one of the most memorable seasons in school history and Miami’s first run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Understandably, that success has piqued the curiosity of maybe some of the more casual college basketball fans in the student body and in the South Florida community beyond that.

But there’s another factor in Miami’s increased student attendance, one that even Larrañaga and the players have credited publicly throughout the season: the work done by the on-campus spirit groups of Category 5 and The Eye to encourage more students to make their way to the Watsco Center on game days, no matter who the Hurricanes are facing.

“Honestly, I don’t think a night like [Monday] happens by accident,” Larrañaga said. “There are a lot of things that have to come together and there has to be a lot of preparation that creates the atmosphere that everybody wants and that everybody enjoys, especially the players, coaches and fans…The first thing is, there’s a spirit group on campus called Category 5 and a group within Category 5, The Eye…that group has been fantastic in generating a lot of interest by the students.”

For the leadership group of Category 5, fostering the kind of environment the Hurricanes had in their home arena on Monday is extremely personal.

One member of the group’s executive board – senior Mia Raffaele – is a pole vaulter on the Hurricanes’ track team and the student-athletes she’s cheering at Miami basketball and football games are the peers she sees not only in classrooms, but around the Hurricanes’ athletic facilities.

Raffaele arrived at Miami after a high school experience where sports featured prominently. She attended most of her school’s football and basketball games, despite a busy schedule that included her classwork and pole vault training.

She wanted to embrace that part of campus life as a Hurricane and joined Cat 5 as a freshman.

Cat 5 chair Rohin Vaidya’s high school experience was a bit different. His school didn’t even have a football team. So when he arrived at Miami, he wanted to make sure he made the most of his opportunities to support Hurricanes athletics across the board.

For both of them, seeing the student support – and the atmosphere at the Watsco Center on Monday as a whole – was especially rewarding after years of working to raise Cat 5’s profile and engaging their fellow students with giveaways and all kinds of special events.

“It was so special. I had chills. I stand in one of the first couple rows and I did, a couple times, turn around and I was just in awe that we had the full force of the student body behind us,” Raffaele said. “I looked back and saw so many kids I’ve been in classes with and just people I’ve known since freshman year. For us to all be there, together, supporting our team, it’s really special. I’m just so thankful to be a part of it.”

Added Vaidya, “What makes this so fun is that those are our friends on the court. We’re not just rooting for some people we’ve never met. We’re rooting for our friends and the people we see on campus every day. I think that just makes it that much more special. Obviously, everyone on campus is tied by that bond of being a Miami Hurricane. It’s so special. I think if you talk to any student, any athlete, any coach on campus, they’ll tell you that being a Miami Hurricane holds weight and we all want to do our best to represent this school in the best way possible.”

As much as it meant to see and hear the crowd at the Watsco Center on Monday, the Hurricanes made it clear their fans – students and the South Florida community as a whole – made a difference in Monday’s win.

The Hurricanes came out with plenty of energy and opened the game on a 13-1 run. By halftime, Miami had built a 40-26 lead and Larrañaga worried.

Could his team continue to play at that high a level for another half?

His fears, it turned out, were unfounded.

“I was very concerned at halftime that we had expelled so much energy that we would not have anything left for the second half,” Larrañaga said. “But sure enough, we went out, we scored a couple of baskets in the second half, the crowd got into it and pretty soon, we kept rolling.”

Added Omier, “The way I’d describe it is fuel. You’re tired in some moments of the game and the fans just start yelling. They give you that hype. You get like a second breath and just push yourself harder, whether it’s on defense or offense. You just push yourself harder. You want to make them happy. You want to protect your home court.”

And to this point in the season, the Hurricanes have protected their home court, with the help from their fans.

Heading into Saturday night’s matchup against Louisville (3-21, 1-12), Miami is a perfect 13-0 at home. No Division I team in the country has more home wins without a loss.

The goal, Miller says, is for the Hurricanes to finish the season unbeaten at the Watsco Center – and to have their fans with them every step of the way.

“Besides getting that fuel, we want them to come back,” Miller said. “We have to win these games whenever they come and show out, which this season has been great. I feel like we play so much better. When a shot’s in the air, it’s quiet for those .5 seconds and then it goes in and everybody’s [yelling] and your ears are ringing for a little bit. It feels good.”

Said Joe Zagacki, the longtime voice of the Hurricanes, “I’ve done just about every game since we brought basketball back in 1985…and [Monday] was a dream come true. Every box was checked. We had a great opponent. We’re a great team. We’re ranked. Every seat was sold and every seat had a white towel on it…Everything was perfect. The crowd, the commitment to getting the crowd involved, the students, the energy they brought, the band, Rick Barry being there…If you create a great home-court advantage, you’re going to have a winning program.”