|Leonard Hamilton on Florida State's growth this season: 'We moved up and we moved on.' (US Presswire)|
ATLANTA -- It seems like a lifetime ago now, but in January, Florida State was clearly a team without an identity.
At one point the Seminoles were 9-6, a record that included ugly losses to Harvard (46-41), Princeton (75-73) and an inexplicably wretched 20-point loss at Clemson in the ACC opener on Jan. 7.
"We were a team with a lot of moving parts but we took that loss [to Clemson] for what it was," said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. "We just knew we had some growing up to do."
After that loss at Clemson there was a take-no-prisoners conversation between Florida State's players and the coaches. Coaches questioned effort and commitment. Players said they were getting mixed messages from the coaches. The conversation continued on the way back to Tallahassee and this much became clear: For this Florida State team, it was time to go back to the drawing board.
The next day at practice the Seminoles started over. Coaches simplified the plays and broke them down into smaller, more easily understood components. They ran the plays over and over until everyone was comfortable and everyone understood what the expectations were.
It cleared the air. And it worked.
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Florida State ran off seven consecutive wins, including a stunning 33-point victory over North Carolina in Tallahassee and a 76-73 buzzer-beating win at Duke. Florida State would not be the same team again.
"We started holding each other accountable," said Hamilton. "We moved up and we moved on."
Now this Florida State team has a chance to go where no Seminole team has gone before. On Sunday, it will play North Carolina for the first ACC tournament championship in school history.
The Seminoles got to the title game by beating No. 2 seed Duke 62-59 in Saturday's semifinals at Philips Arena. In January, Florida State beat North Carolina and Duke in the span of 10 days. Now they have to do it in less than 24 hours in order to make some more history.
Florida State (23-9) built a 10-point lead in the second half only to watch Duke claw back into the game and take a 54-53 lead on Seth Curry's two free throws with 5:03 left.
But Florida State withstood the Duke run and Luke Loucks hit a clutch jumper with 13.4 seconds left to give the Seminoles a three-point lead. Duke's Austin Rivers and Seth Curry both got shots from long range in the final seconds but neither connected.
"We knew they were going to make a run at us because Duke has been in so many games like this and a lot of times they find a way to win," said Loucks. "Coach told us not to concentrate on our offense. He told us defense and rebounding would win the game and he was right."
Duke (27-6) was without its best-shooting big man, 6-foot-11 Ryan Kelly, who missed the ACC tournament with a foot injury. On Saturday coach Mike Krzyzewski was hopeful that Kelly will be ready to go in the NCAA tournament. Duke is expected to be a No. 2 seed and to start Friday in Greensboro, N.C.
"When Florida State comes ready to play they are a very difficult team to beat and they came ready to play today," said Krzyzewski. "They knocked us back in the first half [14 turnovers]. We got back into the game but give them credit. We needed one stop and we just couldn't get that stop. They executed and we didn't stop them."
In his 10 years at Florida State, Hamilton's goal has never changed. He wants to turn Florida State into a "significant program" that is at least discussed when people are talking about Duke and North Carolina. The Seminoles have consistently been the third-place team in the ACC over the past four seasons with 46 conference wins. Should Florida State win Sunday, Hamilton said he would leave it to others to determine what it means in the grand scheme of things.
"We have two of the greatest programs in college basketball history setting the standard in our conference," said Hamilton. "Our challenge is to get better every year and occasionally get between them."
Florida State has certainly done that this season. The Seminoles won two of three meetings with Duke, winning in Durham, losing in Tallahassee and winning Saturday in Atlanta. In the only meeting against North Carolina, Florida State played one of its most complete games under Hamilton, beating the Tar Heels 90-57 behind 32 points from Deividas Dulkys.
"We have to play Sunday's game just as confident as if we'd lost that first game," said Louks. "It's not going to be easy. We have to be the tougher team."
North Carolina (29-4), which is expected to be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA field is announced on Sunday, may be without forward John Henson for the second straight game. Henson, who injured his left wrist on a fall Friday against Maryland, did not play in Saturday's 69-67 win over North Carolina State. Coach Roy Williams said he would let Henson warm up on Sunday and then make a decision on whether or not to play him.
How significant would it be if Florida State wins on Sunday? Consider this: In the past 15 seasons, only one team (Maryland, 2004) other than Duke or North Carolina has won the ACC tournament. In that stretch Duke has won 10 ACC championships while North Carolina has won four.