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March 11, 2012
By Bill Hass
ATLANTA (theACC.com) - When the buzzer sounded Sunday and the confetti showered the court and Florida State's players celebrated the school's first ACC Tournament championship, the coolest person in the building was Leonard Hamilton.
The Seminoles' coach raised his right hand with a clenched fist and held it there for a moment, embraced his assistant coaches, and then watched the joyous proceedings with a satisfied smile. He was the quiet in the storm that erupted around him.
"It's more important for me that (the players) enjoy this for all their hard work, that they have these moments," Hamilton said after Sunday's pulsating 85-82 victory over North Carolina. "I'm excited and I'm happy for them, but shortly after it's over I'll be moving on to the next challenge."
That would be the NCAA Tournament, which Florida State will enter with the ACC's automatic bid and the designation as league champion.
To get to this point, the Seminoles went through traditional ACC powers Duke in the semifinals and North Carolina in the championship. The victories gave them a 4-1 record against those teams this season.
"I feel people finally respect Florida State as a basketball program," said FSU senior Bernard James. "(They won't) overlook us and just give the ACC to Duke or Carolina from Day One. I think we've thrown our hat into the mix and now you've got to think about us from the beginning."
Michael Snaer, the tournament's Most Valuable Player, said that the win changes the culture of sports at Florida State.
"A lot people think of us as more of a football school," he said. "Now we're both."
As has been their tendency this season, the Seminoles didn't accomplish the feat without ups and downs. After all, this is a team that lost twice to Ivy League schools, opened ACC play with a 20-point loss at Clemson and was beaten in February by Boston College, which finished 4-12 in the ACC.
In this game they took the fight to the Tar Heels right away, taking advantage of the absence of 6-10 John Henson, who was in uniform but held out of play with an injured wrist. Henson's shot-blocking presence was sorely missed - without him UNC blocked no shots in its semifinal win and just one shot in the championship.
The first five Seminole baskets were in the paint, which eventually opened up the outside for a flurry of 3-point shots. Overall FSU blistered UNC with 58.9 percent shooting.
The Seminoles led by as many as 17 points, 47-31 with 2:44 left in the first half. But unlike the game in Tallahassee where the Tar Heels were blown out by 33 points, they regrouped and made a tight game of it.
UNC finally whittled things down to 83-82 and had possession. Kendall Marshall launched a 3-point attempt that was off-line and Florida State's Deividas Dulkys out-fought everyone for the rebound.
Snaer said he made a mistake in leaving Marshall so open, then tried to recover.
"I was going to sprint as hard as I ever sprinted in my life, I was going to jump as high as I ever jumped in my life and I tried to contest the shot as hard as I've done since I've been playing basketball," he said. "Luckily he missed the shot and we got the rebound."
That was secured by the 6-5 Dulkys, who was playing the power forward position in a small lineup. James calls him "the smallest four-man in the country."
"I really wanted it, I really wanted that rebound," Dulkys said. "I knew it was important for us. I'm sure the guys boxed out and I just had to go get it. Someone had to do it and it wasn't just me, everybody did what they were supposed to do and that's why I got it."
Dulkys was fouled with 3.9 seconds left and stepped to the line in a one-and-one situation. He admitted to a tinge of nervousness because of the atmosphere of a championship game. But the first one swished cleanly through, followed by the second for a three-point lead.
"He got a grown man rebound on that last play, got fouled and was able to knock down his free throws to put us over the top," James said. "He's a stone-cold killer. I had no doubt in my mind he was going to make them."
The game had one final dramatic element. UNC ran a play with 3.3 seconds left designed to get Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock or P.J. Hairston open. Hairston, the freshman who hit a trio of 3-pointers and scored 13 points, got off a long 3-point attempt that looked like it might go but was just a hair off-line and bounced away at the buzzer.
"Coach told us that we had at least one dribble to get the shot off," Hairston said "I got the ball, took one dribble and the (defender) kind of backed off, so I had a good look at it. It's up to me to hit it and I didn't."
The game took an all-around effort by the Seminoles, who had seven players score nine or more points. They got 28 points off the bench from guard Ian Miller, forward Okaro White and center Jon Kreft.
Kreft, averaging 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds, hit all four shots and contributed nine points and four rebounds in 15 minutes of play. He alternated with James with the idea of wearing down UNC center Tyler Zeller.
"Zeller is a very good player so in order to stop him or slow him down we had to be just as physical back," Kreft said. "It was a matter of coming out and giving the energy. (James) gave the same energy as well and switching us in and out put a lot of tired on him."
The game was extra special to Dulkys, post player Xavier Gibson and point guard Luke Loucks, who as freshmen reached the tournament championship but were defeated soundly by Duke.
"I think when I was a freshman we were just excited to be in a championship game," said Dulkys, sporting a small flag of his native Lithuania in his champion's cap. "We didn't play well and Duke deserved to win it.
"This year we really wanted it and we strived as a team the whole season and I'm glad we did it. We played tough as a team and it worked."
The loss, while it hurt, did not affect North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels still drew a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region and will open play Friday in Greensboro.
"Right now we're pretty upset," Zeller said. "It can go one of two ways. It can put us back at ground zero, which we hope we don't ever go back to, or we can use it to drive us and get more motivated, more precise with things."
Florida State's path begins as the No. 3 seed in the East Region with a game against St. Bonaventure in Nashville. Despite their history-making achievement Sunday, the Seminoles are hungry for more.
"I want to make it to that last weekend," said Snaer. "I know this team is a Final Four-capable team and we're going to keep proving it."
If they are able to make it that far, it will be under the guidance of their cool hand coach, who will make an occasional sideline display at an official's call but rarely for very long.
"That's his style, he's very even-keeled," Loucks said. "One of the things he's taught us, which we haven't quite learned yet, is not get too high on the ups and not get too down on the downs. His attitude is, we expected to do this so why celebrate so much? I know in his heart he's very happy for us."
Hamilton said he and his staff train the players on that even-keel course. He's an emotional guy, he insisted, the product of a tough upbringing.
"In order for me to be effective, I have to stay focused," he said. "I grew up in an area (Gastonia, N.C.) where you had to learn how to deal with challenges and the things that we had to overcome makes the stuff that we have to deal with here pale.
"If I'm emotional and out of control that gives my players the right to do that. So I always want to stay in the moment, don't allow myself to get too far to the right or to the left and keep a level head so you can think properly and try to help your team win."
It was a formula that worked to perfection for three days in Atlanta.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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