CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Despite their 26-6 overall record, despite their No. 12 national ranking and despite their fourth-place finish in the nation’s toughest basketball conference, the Florida State Seminoles didn’t seem to factor much into the plans for the ACC tournament’s Semifinal Friday.
There were, for the first time ever, three top-5 teams among the league’s final four. And then there was Florida State at 12.
There were three different shades of blue-bloods, two Hall-of-Fame coaches and, as anyone watching the television broadcast can attest, a superstar freshman waiting for the spotlight.
Picked to finish seventh in the ACC a few months ago, and not given a single selection to the league’s all-conference teams earlier this week, the plans here at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center seemed to suggest that the Seminoles would bow out to top-seeded and No. 2 Virginia, then await their NCAA tournament fates while the Cavaliers and either Duke or North Carolina took center stage in the ACC title game on Saturday night.
So much for that.
David Nichols scored a game-high 14 points – including 10 in the second half – and Christ Koumadje added nine points and nine rebounds as the Seminoles rolled to a stunning, 69-59 victory over Virginia in front of a full house at the Spectrum Center.
Florida State’s victory …
“We’re kind of an unknown team,” coach Leonard Hamilton said after the game. “Not very many people felt that we could even have the chance to win this game. I mean, that’s part of the journey we’re on.
“When you’re in a conference with the quality teams that are in the ACC, and you’re trying to find a way to get into that hierarchy, it’s challenging.”
Consider what happened Friday night as one more chip off the hierarchy’s foundation.
Because the Seminoles (27-6) didn’t just beat the Cavaliers (29-3). For large stretches, they dominated.
Florida State led for more than 38 minutes of game time, lit up UVA’s famed “pack line” defense to the tune of 56.5-percent shooting – the second highest percentage allowed by the Cavs this season – and held a plus-15 advantage on the glass.
Four Seminoles scored in double figures, two more scored nine points and FSU’s bench outscored Virginia’s 28-8.
UVA All-American Kyle Guy, meanwhile, had just 11 points, well below his season average (15.8), and was held scoreless in the second half.
“Florida State played well, they defended well, they were sound and tonight they were the tougher team,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
“Hat’s off to Florida State. That’s a well-coached, good team.”
Hamilton all season has preached that the Seminoles “win by committee,” and that they’re greater than the sum of their individual parts.
On any given night, any one player in FSU’s 12-man rotation can be a hero.
In FSU’s win overtime win against Virginia Tech, it was Devin Vassell and Terance Mann.
Against the Cavaliers, it was Nichols’ turn to wear the cape.
A senior transfer from Albany, Nichols a year ago was playing in front of about 4,500 fans in the America East tournament.
Fast-forward 12 months, and Nichols was making the biggest shots in the biggest game of his life.
The Chicago native finished 6 of 8 from the floor, added five rebounds and three assists and grabbed two steals.
When the Cavaliers took a brief lead midway through the second half, Nichols’ turnaround jumper put the Seminoles back on top.
A few moments later, his feed to Mfiondu Kabengele on the wing led to a 3-pointer that gave the Seminoles some breathing room.
And when Virginia’s Ty Jerome answered with a triple of his own that cut FSU’s lead to one, Nichols answered by scoring the Seminoles’ next six points and sparking an 11-1 run that sealed the game.
Not bad for a guy who only scored five points when the Seminoles first met UVA in January.
“I was really just playing off my teammates,” Nichols added. “They were doing a great job of driving the ball downhill and opening up lanes for me. Christ was a big presence down low. They had to respect his lobs. Phil hit a lot of big 3s, so they couldn’t sink in off him, and that just all created lanes to drive.”
After finishing his post-game media obligations, Hamilton donned a black FSU cap, headed out of the locker room and made his way onto the arena floor to catch a few minutes of North Carolina-Duke.
From his vantage point in the corner, he could see that his Seminoles might not have much in common with either the Tar Heels or Blue Devils.
Both teams are loaded with future professional stars, and main attraction Zion Williamson is a virtual lock to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft later this year.
Williamson earned ACC player of the year honors after a highlight-filled freshman year at Duke, and he’s just one of five representatives from UNC or Duke to be named first- or second-team All-ACC selections.
It’s a stark contrast to the Seminoles and their five seniors, their one junior and their revolving cast of heroes.
Hamilton, though, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We don’t have a Zion Williamson or a one-and-done guy that’s playing 38, 39 minutes,” Hamilton said. “Our guys are best suited for the way we’re playing. They’ve bought into it, they make sacrifices for one another. They play with an unselfish spirit.
“And tonight, we just happened to put it all together against a very, very good basketball team.”