TAMPA – Sporting new long-sleeved shirts with the words "Whatever It Takes" across the front, the Florida State basketball team somehow found a way to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive on Thursday
And maybe it wasn't the prettiest display of last-minute basketball, but the 67-66 victory over Clemson certainly looked good enough for a Florida State team that has been on the wrong end of so many late-game
losses in the last few years.
"There is no question you could see our kids really wanted the game,"
FSU associate head coach Stan Jones said. "It wasn't necessarily
pretty, but today they just grinded it out. It's like Al McGuire
always said, survive and advance."
Senior forward Al Thornton's free throw with 1.5 seconds remaining
gave FSU players and coaches a reason to finally exhale on Thursday.
Though there was no guarantee of an NCAA tournament bid if the
Seminoles won, they knew they had no shot at dancing if they lost for
a third time against the Tigers.
That's why Jones said the coaching staff made certain that the players
understood the first-round game was the only thing they could control
when it came to talking about the NCAA tournament.
"Today was about how we have not played well against Clemson," Jones
said. "It was about us not letting Clemson sweep us three games in one
season and getting that off our backs in case there were NCAA
implications. It was about beating Clemson and getting that off our
back. We've been on this kick since the N.C. State game. This is your
last opportunity, and you have to take advantage of this opportunity
or you are going to be playing in the three-letter tournament instead
of the four-letter tournament."
Thornton's performance certainly elicited more than a handful of
four-letter words – from the Clemson fans in attendance.
Just a few days after becoming the third player in school history to earn first-team All-ACC honors, Thornton made believers out of a crowd of 22,269 fans at the St. Pete Times Forum.
He scored 18 points in the first half, and led all scorers with 25
points (and 11 rebounds) in a game that was labeled "must-win" for
But it was a huge 3-pointer by sophomore guard Toney Douglas that
breathed life into the Seminoles when they needed it most. With FSU
down 66-61 with 3:09 remaining, Douglas hit an open 3-pointer in
transition – his only 3-pointer of the game – to cut the lead to two
"We were coming down in transition and it was like a one-on-three
really," Douglas said. "I drove the ball all the way down the court
and I pulled it back out and all three defenders for Clemson were
under the basket and I was wide open and I was able to knock the
Thornton then decided to take over the game in a way that only he can.
He blocked Clemson's next shot attempt – a layup by Trevor Booker –
and grabbed the rebound. Then, on the other end of the floor, he got
the ball on the left wing and drove baseline for a spectacular dunk in
traffic that tied the game with 1:39 remaining.
With the game tied and less than a minute remaining, FSU failed to get
off a quality shot and had to watch in horror as Clemson secured a
loose ball to set up what looked like the game's final possession.
a over-and-back violation by Clemson's Cliff Hammonds that gave the
Seminoles the ball with eight seconds remaining.
Hamilton then drew up a play that had Thornton coming off a series of
three staggered screens – and the All-American candidate drew a foul
with 1.5 seconds remaining.
Thornton missed the first free throw but made the second, and gave FSU
its first ACC tournament victory since 2003.
"It didn't exactly go as planned," FSU guard Isaiah Swann said. "Al
was supposed to make the first one and miss the second. But I'll take
the final result."
That result leaves FSU still in contention for the program's first
NCAA tournament bid since 1998.
The Tigers (21-10) entered the game ranked 36th in the Ratings
Percentage Index, meaning the victory by FSU gives the Seminoles five
wins over top-50 teams in the RPI. Only 15 teams in the country,
including eight from the ACC, have more top-50 wins.
A win over North Carolina today would give FSU a fourth win over a
top-15 RPI team, something Hamilton can only hope will help his team
offset a 7-9 record in ACC play.
"I think we are a quality team and I think we deserve to be in the
NCAA Tournament," Hamilton said.