NASHVILLE, Tenn. - While his team reeled and pressure mounted and time was starting to run thin, Florida State's most effective player came to the bench with a plea for his head coach.
Bernard James wanted the rock.
"Every time I get the ball, I'm scoring," he told Leonard Hamilton.
Coming out flat and lagging behind a fiery No. 14 seed St. Bonaventure bunch for the first 35 minutes, the No. 3 seed Seminoles jumped on the back of James, who delivered an inspired performance to help FSU sneak out of Bridgestone Arena with a 66-63 win on Friday. The Seminoles will take on No. 6 seed Cincinnati, which beat No. 11 seed Texas, in the Round of 32 on Sunday.
"We just kept saying over and over again, we don't want to go home, we don't want to watch of this tournament from our couches," FSU guard Luke Loucks said. "In the midst of all that, (James) just kept screaming at me 'Just get me the ball, I'm going to finish.'
"As a point guard, when a 6-foot-10 Air Force veteran is screaming at you, you listen."
While several of Florida State's usual offensive weapons struggled, it leaned on James, who just about scored every time as he proclaimed - netting a career-high 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. St. Bonaventure (20-12) took a 34-28 lead to the half, and when FSU (25-9) continued to struggle on the offensive end early in the second half, James scored 11 points through a 13-minute stretch to keep the Seminoles afloat. The final points, a dunk with 6:56 left, forced a tie at 52-52.
"Bernard is a guy who says what he has to say when he feels like he's got to exert his leadership," Hamilton said. "That's what you expect to get from a senior. He's normally a follower of the team - just being a good teammate - but (Friday) he was confident enough to realize the fact that if we got him the ball, he could deliver. I thought we got it to him, and I thought his teammates did a very good job looking for him. We had to."
Ian Miller and Loucks would come to James' aid with back-to-back 3-pointers, giving FSU its first lead of the game at 58-52. While the Bonnies hung around, making three 3-point shots in the final 1:45 to keep the pressure on, the Seminoles wouldn't relinquish the lead again. Down 66-63, St. Bonaventure would get a game-tying possession, but Florida State's defense wouldn't allow the Bonnies to get a shot off as time expired.
"They're the fifth best defensive team in the country. The fifth best. We were right there with them," said St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt, who led the Bonnies to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. "They're a heck of a team. For us to be able to hang with them is a credit to our guys."
Not only was the stage big with a lively underdog and the sharp ledge of the NCAA Tournament, but James picked up for a struggling perimeter game. Michael Snaer, the team's leading scorer, went scoreless for the first time this year. Snaer and Miller, the Seminoles' two strongest offensive weapons, went a combined 3-of-17 from the field.
Snaer, who picked up two fouls in the first 2:22, played only five minutes in the first half and never found a rhythm as he went 0 of 7 from the field. He was averaging 14.5 points per game entering Friday.
"Our guards were kind of struggling a little bit with shooting, you know, so, I mean, really needed to step up," said James, who hit his previous career high of 18 points three times this season. "I was able to get a couple post catches and finish some plays and get a couple of offensive put-backs off rebounds.
"I just felt like I did what my team needed. I played as hard as I could and, you know, wasn't being selfish, trying to do whatever the team needed."
Starting with a flurry of early turnovers, Florida State fell in an early 7-0 hole, a hole it needed most of the game to dig out of. St. Bonaventure, which had won seven of eight games entering Friday and earned the NCAA bid by winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament, built its advantage behind the play of 6-foot-9 Andrew Nicholson. The future NBA draft pick led the Bonnies with 20 points including 12 on 5-of-5 shooting in the first 20 minutes.
But as James picked up the pace on offense, he did the same defensively on Nicholson, fronting him in the low post and containing him for most of the second half. After the 5-for-5 start, Nicholson finished 3-of-12 from the field and had to sink two of those beyond the arc.
"It was a great defensive job," Hamilton said.
On both ends of the floor, it was James that propelled the Seminoles out of upset territory and into the next round.
"A few (possessions), we weren't even running any plays," Loucks said. "I was kind of waiting people out, giving (James) the ball, and obviously, you know, you look at the stat sheet he was producing all night long."