"It's Like a Dream Come True"
HOUSTON – Norchad Omier settled into the batters’ box, pointed to the sky and called his shot.
Behind him, some of his Miami teammates couldn’t help but chuckle.
For one brief moment on this Thursday afternoon, the Hurricanes forward – a key contributor during Miami’s incredible NCAA Tournament run – returned to his baseball roots during a visit to the Men’s Final Four Fan Fest in downtown Houston.
Not far, some of the Hurricanes posed for space-themed photos, while others found their way to some of the basketball skill stations set up inside the George R. Brown Convention Center. A few of them still even wore the commemorative cowboy hats they’d received earlier in the day.
The brief fan fest outing capped an hours-long series of events for the Hurricanes who on their first full day in Houston had the opportunity to truly soak in all that comes with the Final Four experience.
There were photo shoots, interview sessions, press conferences, and yes, their first look at the court inside NRG Stadium, with a practice on the agenda, to boot.
“We’re enjoying this experience a lot,” said Hurricanes guard Nijel Pack. “It’s been a lot of fun. The NCAA has shown us a lot of hospitality. We’ve really enjoyed it. We’re trying to take everything in, but it’s been so much. It’s been great.”
Throughout the postseason, Hurricanes head coach Jim Larrañaga has often said that he wants his players to enjoy themselves, even as they’re competing for a national title.
He reiterated that point yet again on Thursday, acknowledging how nearly two decades after he led George Mason to a berth in the Final Four, it’s still a big topic of conversation for him.
The significance of being on this stage, of having this opportunity, isn’t one he takes for granted.
He wants to make sure his players don’t either.
“I want our players to enjoy this moment. Because you know what? It will last a lifetime,” Larrañaga said. “Seventeen years ago, and you guys are still asking about our run to the Final Four at George Mason. It never stops. For these guys, they’ll be telling stories to their grandchildren: ‘Oh, man, I played in the Final Four. We went to Houston. Yeah. Did you win?’ That will be what it’s like. And so, we’re having a blast. I’m staying in the moment and just having fun with it.”
The Hurricanes seemed to be heeding their coach’s advice.
As they moved from event to event, interview to interview, and promotional shoot to promotional shoot, laughter seemingly followed them everywhere.
“It’s been surreal. I mean, being able to share this experience with my teammates, it’s all of our first time making it to the Final Four, so just a bunch of smiles on our faces, trying to soak in the moment before tip-off, when it gets really serious,” said Miami guard Jordan Miller. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, more times than not. Just being able to share laughs together, just experiencing this in my final year of college is truly a blessing.”
Added fellow guard Bensley Joseph, “I am just living this experience. It’s a dream come true. A lot of people in the world dream about playing in the Final Four and it’s a blessing. We put in a lot of hard work all season, and this is the time now, so we’re just here to experience it.”
Omier, the first Nicaraguan-born basketball player to earn a Division I scholarship, has said more than once this season how much it’s meant to him to represent his homeland throughout his Miami journey.
On Thursday, he had the chance to represent Nicaragua on collage basketball’s biggest stage when he was asked – in Spanish – about his Final Four experience during Miami’s press conference.
Needless to say, he answered the question flawlessly.
He also did multiple radio interviews in Spanish and said he was more than ready to continue doing his part to make his countrymen proud.
“I wasn’t expecting that, but I was ready. Anybody talks to me in Spanish, I have an answer for them every time,” Omier said with a big smile. “This feels good and I’m just so thankful. It’s crazy how God works. Three weeks ago, I got hurt in the ACC Tournament. I [went through] a lot of treatment and now I’m here with my team, enjoying this. It’s just amazing.”
South Florida Takes Center Stage
With Florida Atlantic University in this year’s Final Four along with Miami, the growth of basketball in South Florida has taken center stage in Houston.
And Larrañaga is plenty okay with that, saying Thursday he hopes youngsters in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County are paying attention to what the Hurricanes and Owls are doing.
“As far as I’m concerned, I hope every eight to 18-year-old that’s still growing and trying to find a school, I hope they decide to follow FAU and Miami during this Final Four and decide, ‘I’m going to play. Basketball is going to be my primary sport.’ That’s really how your sport evolves.
“When the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat franchises began…basketball all of a sudden became a major sport in the state. We have a lot of young players in Coral Gables and in Miami that are going to be very highly recruited. And there’s a lot of great players throughout the state. And this only enhances it, that [FAU’s] run and our run will make kids watching TV [think] ‘Man, I want to do that.’”
As much basketball as the Hurricanes have played throughout their respective careers, none have experienced a venue like NRG Stadium, the home of the Houston Texans, which seats more than 71,000 fans.
Miami’s players and coaches got their first look at the stadium and court on Thursday when the team had its first practice in Houston.
Needless to say, the site made an impression.
“It was amazing,” Pack said. “To see the atmosphere that we’re going to play in and imagine all the fans that are going to be there, it’s like a dream come true for a kid.”