This means something to Florida State. That’s what makes it cool.
This isn’t Mike Krzyzewski giving that, “We lost, whatever,” look after Duke fell in the semifinals Saturday, or North Carolina’s Roy Williams waxing on famously about not caring if “those blue-haired old ladies” criticize him for not viewing the ACC tournament as wonderland.
Because for Duke and North Carolina, March is about the tournament with four letters (NCAA), not three. The ACC tournament, no matter its history and tradition, no matter the fans (blue hairs and others) traveling from Durham, Chapel Hill and all Tobacco roads in between, has been reduced to the dinner salad.
But not for Florida State. This is the entire right side of the menu.
The Seminoles are ACC champions – in football, not basketball. Leonard Hamilton, forever one of the nation’s better coaches whom nobody talks about, finally received some validation for what he’s accomplished over the past several years. On Saturday, Florida State upset Duke, winner of 19 conference tournament championships. On Sunday, it held on to stun North Carolina, winner of 17 tournament titles, 85-82, at Philips Arena.
Afterward, FSU players celebrated like they probably hadn’t since winning the Metro title in 1991, when nobody outside of Tallahassee really cared. (Actually, it’s debatable how many in Tallahassee really cared.)
“I feel like people will finally respect Florida State as a basketball program, rather than just give the ACC to Duke or Carolina from day one – just assume they’re going to win it,” said Seminoles forward Bernard James, who is from Savannah. “We’ve thrown our hat into the mix and now you’ve got to think about us from the beginning.”
It meant something. Florida State split two games with Duke during the regular season, then eliminated the Blue Devils in the semis. It pounded North Carolina by 33 points (90-57) in January, a moment so humiliating for the Tar Heels that “33” was written on a white board at the Heels’ arena as a motivator for the rest of the season.
North Carolina went 14-1 the rest of the season, the only loss coming by one point to Duke. But on Sunday, it was easy to tell which team was starving for attention.
The Tar Heels led only once — at 17-16, for exactly six seconds.
Florida State led by as much as 16 points late in the first half and 14 with 14:38 left in the game. The Noles buried jumpers (shooting 62.5 percent in the first half) and dominated inside.
Williams’ lament: “We didn’t play every possession with a great deal of intensity or concentration.”
North Carolina made its inevitable run, closing to seven points, then four, then one (83-82) with 31 seconds left after a three pointer by Kendall Marshall. But when Marshall missed a jumper with six seconds remaining, it pretty much was over.
The Noles mobbed each other at center court. Confetti fell. The largely powder-blue clad fans – they just sort of watched.
Afterward, Hamilton talked about what it means for his program to crash a party that had been dominated by two schools (Duke or North Carolina coming into the week had won the last seven ACC tournaments, 14 of 15 and 36 of 58 overall).
“We can’t replace Duke and North Carolina because of their history and tradition, but maybe now we’ll receive some recognition for what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We need to start stacking these up.”
Williams knows this wasn’t a fluke. He has been friends with Hamilton for over 30 years, since both were assistants (Williams at North Carolina, Hamilton at Kentucky). When somebody mentioned that Hamilton had become the first African American coach to win an ACC title, it struck Williams as an afterthought.
“To me he’s just a coach,” Williams said. “In my opinion he’s gotten a bad wrap about being just a great recruiter and not being able to coach. I’m not saying anything about him being the first African American because guys our age remember when that [had more significance]. When l look at Leonard Hamilton, I look at him as a peer whom I have a lot of respect for. Yes, he’s African American and I’m white redneck or whatever. But I look at him as a friend.”
Williams, Krzyzewski and everybody else might want to get used to this. This figures to be more than a cameo for Florida State.
By Jeff Schultz