LOS ANGELES – They were still in the Staples Arena stands nearly an hour after the game, maybe 150 Seminole fans, waiting and cheering for each FSU player and coach who emerged from the locker room after the NCAA West Region final game to decide whether it would be an all-Cinderella bracket in San Antonio.
They knew now that their ninth-seeded heroes would not make it to their first Final Four since 1972. Michigan’s Wolverines would have a bit too much in a 58-54 win in this Elite Eight game at Staples Center.
In a game that looked like the best versions of each school’s football teams playing goal-line defense, the Seminoles (23-12) just could not quite close at the end as they so often have in recent weeks. But not for lack of trying. You can’t play defense any harder than the Seminoles did in holding a Michigan team coming off a 99-point game Thursday to just 58.
“Nobody wanted to lose,” said Terrance Mann, who joined Seminole Phil Cofer on the West Region All-Tournament team.
“We were fighting for respect,” said PJ Savoy, whose 12 points joined Cofer’s 16 as the lone double-figure scorers for the Seminoles Saturday in front of 19,665 fans.
“I thought we were fighting for respect,” Savoy said in the quiet Seminoles locker room. “We feel most people in the ACC don’t respect us. We were playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
But that wasn’t enough for the Seminoles, who were able to close a pair of 10-point second half deficits to two, 56-54, but could not get the ball to drop at the end. No matter how hard they played on the other end, very few shots rolled in and dropped down when they most needed them as Florida State finished the game shooting 31.4 percent on 16 of 50.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Leonard Hamilton said in falling short of what would have been his first Final Four. “They were a little more poised than we were tonight.”
Never more so than in the first half when Florida State committed 14 of its total 15 turnovers for the game in trailing Michigan 27-26 at intermission.
“We were so close,” Cofer said. “Everybody realized what we had to do. I think it was a little bit [our shooting] and a little bit the silly turnovers.”
“Normally when you hold a team to as low a shooting percentage and shoot it as well as we did, you’re probably going into halftime a little up,” Hamilton said.
Not on this night as all that defense just kept it close with Michigan leading one, 27-26, at intermission.
And so the Wolverines, with their school-record 32nd win (against seven losses) will move on to face Loyola in San Antonio Saturday in the national semifinal game. But Florida State could not have played harder.
Trailing 54-44 with 2:25 in a game where it was so tough to score, Mann hit a jumper with 2:06 left to make it 54-46. Then Savoy hit three free throws to close it to 54-49 with 1:30 left.
After a free throw by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Savoy’s three-pointer with 1:16 closed it to 55-52. A Zavier Simpson free throw upped Michigan’s lead to 56-52 with 39 seconds left but Cofer’s layup with 24 seconds left made it 56-54. Following a Mann foul, Duncan Robinson’s two free throws closed out the scoring.
Savoy’s final three missed with 13 seconds left and that was it.
“Tonight I thought Michigan was a little bit better than we were for an eight, nine- or 10-minute period, and it was very difficult for us to overcome that . . . I think what we have to do is give Michigan credit for making the plays,” said Hamilton.
As for his own team, “If we had made those layups . . . we must have missed four or five point-blank layups and they had just as difficult shots at the other end. I was really disappointed that three or four of those shots did not go in.”
But this Seminole team never quit, no matter how many shots rolled off, Cofer said. “We’ve been down before, we’ve been down more,” he said. And kept coming back.
“Nobody knew who this team was coming into the season,” said Associate Head Coach Stan Jones. “It took a while but they finally figured things out.”
They figured out how to get to LA and the Elite Eight. But that next step is the big one.
“You realize how difficult it is to get to a national title,” Hamilton said.
But this year the Seminoles could at least see where that territory is that you have to get to.