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March 18, 2014

Noles outlast Eagles in NIT opener

Take on FSU fans in the $1 Billion Bracket Challenge

No Ian Miller? No problem. Aaron Thomas was there to answer the bell for FSU on Tuesday night, and gave the Seminoles a 58-53 win against Florida Gulf Coast in the NIT's opening round.

Thomas led the Seminoles with 22 points, including 14 straight during a pivotal portion of the second half. His production made up for the absence of Miller, who sat out Tuesday's game after suffering a toe injury against Virginia in the ACC Tournament.

"Aaron put his big-boy pants on tonight and stepped up and gave us a tremendous effort," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "I've been coaching a long time and it's very difficult to play that much."

The first half was painfully sloppy and consistency only slightly improved in the second half. Florida Gulf Coast was content to play at a frenetic pace and FSU was content to use reserves Joell Hopkins, Brandon Allen and Marquez White in the first half. The result was a turnover-happy opening 20 minutes. The two teams combined for 24 turnovers and 25 missed shots in the first half alone. FSU finished the game with 16 turnovers while Florida Gulf Coast had 19.

Florida Gulf Coast came out firing in the second half with a 6-0 run to take control of the game. Florida State didn't score for the first 3:51 of the second half, leaving the door open for the Eagles. FGCU's lead grew to six before Thomas took over.

"We had a period there where we took very quick shots and they were doing a great job of jamming the lane," Hamilton said. "I thought we played into their hands at the beginning of the first half."

Thomas rallied FSU back into the game by himself for most of the second half. He scored 14 straight points during a pivotal stretch in the middle of the second half, and his three-pointer with 8:10 to play gave the Seminoles a 44-43 lead. The lead changed 10 times, most in the second half when Thomas dueled with the FGCU roster. He even drained a deep, contested three-pointer - a play straight out of Miller's book - to tie the game with 11 minutes to play.

"I didn't have a mindset of go out and try to take over, I just thought I had to come in and be more aggressive," Thomas said. "That's the term I use, come in and be aggressive and be harder."

Thomas certainly was that. He opened his 14-point spread with a thunderous dunk in traffic and didn't let up. The Seminoles needed every bit of Thomas' effort in a game where buckets were hard to come by. FSU shot 42.2 percent for the game and only 40 percent in the second half. Thomas played almost every second of the game and is averaging 36.2 minutes per game in the past five contests. When Thomas asked for a breather with 1:46 to play, Hamilton shook his head.

"I told him I needed a quick blow," Thomas said. "He gave me that 'It's only one minute left,' So I'm like 'Alright, I can ride it out.'"

White took over to close the game out for FSU. He had six points in the final five minutes of play to give FSU just enough cushion down the stretch. White finished the game with 17 points.

Florida State also - sort of - took advantage of 28 trips to the foul line. The Seminoles were in the double-bonus for the final 3:35 of the game, but let FGCU hang around by consistently missing. FSU shot just 57 percent from the foul line (16-28), despite ranking among the ACC leaders in free throw shooting heading into the game. FSU even missed four of its final five free throws in the final minute before Devon Bookert and White made two in the final 25 seconds to ice the game and ensure FSU moves on in the NIT.

Boris Bojanovsky added eight points and five rebounds, while Bookert led the Seminoles with eight rebounds.

With the win, FSU advances to play Georgetown in the NIT's second round on Monday.



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