Historic win! Seminoles advance to Final Four* for first time in 48 years
HOUSTON -- It was the biggest win of Leonard Hamilton's career.
It was the biggest win of all of their careers. And even though the celebration was going to last late into the night and well into Sunday, Hamilton made sure to remind everyone after Florida State's 79-69 victory over Ohio State on Saturday night in Houston that there was still work left to do.
"Nobody has ever climbed a ladder and cut down a net after winning four NCAA Tournament games," Hamilton said.
He then stopped himself mid-sentence.
"Wait a second, that's not true," Hamilton said. "I just cut this sweet piece of string down a few minutes ago and hung it around my neck. She's pretty, ain't she? And she's got a twin sister in Atlanta I wouldn't mind adding to the collection."
Just like they did after clinching the ACC regular-season championship at the Tucker Center three weeks ago, Hamilton, his coaches and players climbed a ladder at the Toyota Center on Saturday night and cut down the nets to celebrate a historical accomplishment.
The Seminoles are going back to the Final Four for the first time since 1972.
"I wonder if Coach Hamilton had hair back then," said sophomore guard Devin Vassell, who had 21 points -- including two huge 3-pointers in a critical second-half run -- to lead the Seminoles in scoring. "He was alive then, right?"
Yes, assistant coach Charlton Young explained. Hamilton is 71 right now, so he was in his early 20s when that FSU team -- coached by Hugh Durham -- played UCLA for the national title.
"Wait, Coach Ham is 71 years old?!?" Vassell replied. "I thought he was like 42. Is that true? There's no way that's true. He looks younger than Dom and Malik. Are we sure that's true?
It is, indeed.
What else is true is it can now be written with complete confidence and certainty: The 2019-'20 Florida State men's basketball team is the best one Hamilton has ever coached.
The Seminoles are 32-5 on the season and will play No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the Final Four on Saturday in Atlanta. The Jayhawks beat No. 10 seed Florida in the Elite Eight, likely saving Gators head coach Mike White from the indignity of getting beaten by Hamilton for a seventh straight time.
The other two Final Four participants will be between Louisville and Villanova in the East and Gonzaga and Seton Hall in the West. Those games will be played on Sunday.
The Seminoles were able to make history on Saturday by doing what they've done all year: Create turnovers and get plenty of production from essentially everyone on the team.
Redshirt sophomore Anthony Polite came off the bench to hit four 3s in the first half, with his last one coming just before the buzzer to give the Seminoles a 38-29 lead at the break. After every made 3 on Saturday, Polite pointed down to his wrist.
"I'm Swiss," he said. "So I was just telling them what time it was."
"That's why we call him, 'Swatch,'" Wyatt Wilkes yelled from across the locker room.
"Nobody calls me that," said Polite, who finished with 14 points and three steals. "But in reality, they weren't guarding me all that closely when I came into the game. So I made them pay."
Senior Trent Forrest was dominant on the defensive end of the floor, recording six steals -- five of which came while guarding former teammate C.J. Walker, who now starts for the Buckeyes. The FSU senior finished with 12 points, six assists and five rebounds as well.
"I might've remembered a few things from when he was in Tallahassee," Forrest said of Walker. "Mainly, that I'm better than him. And I'm why he transferred. ... Nah, I'm just kidding. He's a good player. And a brother for life. I told him after the game I was proud of him."
Forrest even brought out Walker's old Florida State jersey and asked the transfer if he wanted to wear it and climb the ladder during the net-cutting ceremony.
"I think he thought I was being nasty," Forrest said. "But I really wasn't. C.J. was a big part of those first two teams we had. He hit some huge shots and made some great plays during those seasons. He was a terrific teammate. There's no hard feelings. He was a part of this, so I thought it would be cool for him to see what climbing a ladder felt like."
Forrest and the Seminoles forced 21 Ohio State turnovers in the game, which helped result in 22 fast-break points for FSU.
Malik Osborne had two huge alley-oop dunks during a 12-2 run in the first half, and Balsa Koprivica had two in the second half. One came on a no-look pass from RaiQuan Evans in transition.
"I can't believe I'm going to the Final Four," said Osborne, who chipped in seven points and five rebounds. "You realize I was at Rice two years ago? Rice! And now I'm in the Final Four. This is unbelievable. Truly. I'm so thankful to be on this team."
The only person more thankful than Osborne on Saturday night seemed to be M.J. Walker. Not only did the junior guard score 16 points -- hitting four straight free throws in the final minute to ice it -- but he didn't sustain any injuries during his 28 minutes on the court.
He did almost cause one, though.
When Clutch the Bear -- the Houston Rockets mascot who accidentally caused Walker to require several stitches in the Sweet 16 game against Maryland on Thursday -- came out midway through the second half to shoot T-shirts into the crowd, Walker was ready to pounce.
While associate head coach Stan Jones drew up an out-of-bounds play during a timeout, Walker hopped up from his chair and raced to midcourt, blindsiding Clutch and knocking his furry head completely off. The T-shirt gun flew to the other end of the court, narrowly missing Florida State sports information director Chuck Walsh.
After seeing the commotion, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann pleaded with the game officials to call Walker for a technical foul. But after an 11-minute conference at the scorers' table, which lasted through two commercial breaks, the referees decided no foul was committed because Clutch wasn't an active participant in the game.
"During warmups, I went over to shake his hand and say no hard feelings," Walker said. "And he just did a little dance in front of me, turned around and showed me his backside. No words. No handshake. No paw bump. Just a weird butt dance.
"Well, M.J. don't play that. So when I got the chance, I wrecked him. I honestly felt like I was back in Atlanta playing Pop Warner. It was perfect. I just drove my shoulder through his hips. It felt great. But not as great as the win. Total team effort. Proud of the guys."
Said Hamilton: "Now, would I prefer my starting shooting guard not tackle a mascot in the second half of an Elite Eight game? Sure. Obviously. But let's be honest: Clutch had it coming. I just hope they can reattach the head at some point. That looked painful."
Florida State's lead grew as large as 15 points in the second half before the Buckeyes, led by Walker, made a run. The former FSU guard scored eight points in the span of two minutes to cut the Seminoles' lead to just five with six minutes remaining.
That's when Vassell did what Vassell does. He hit back-to-back 3s to increase the lead back to 11 and then took an alley-oop pass from Polite and slammed it home to finish off the game-clinching run.
"That was a great pass by Swatch," Vassell said. "I just went up and got it. And the two 3s felt great as soon as I let them go. We needed to respond in that moment. I'm glad we did. This is a great feeling.
"But still, I ... I ... I just can't believe Coach Ham is 71 years old. Is that true? That can't be true."
It is, Devin. It is.
And so is this: Your 71-year-old coach and his all-time best team are two wins away from a national championship.
About this story
It was the best regular season in school history, and one that was punctuated with an ACC Championship and a No. 4 national ranking heading into the postseason.
Which is what made what happened next so frustrating and heartbreaking.
With the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, Florida State's players, coaches and fans will never get to know just how far the Seminoles would've gotten.
Would more nets have been cut down? Would another trophy have been hoisted? Would Trent Forrest and the boys have had any more heroics left in them?
Well, it's time we find out ... with Warchant's 2020 What Could Have Been NCAA Tournament?
Here's the recap of FSU's first-round win over Belmont, and this is how the Seminoles knocked off LSU in the second round. In the Sweet 16, the Seminoles rallied from a huge deficit to knock off Maryland.