March 8, 2007
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -With the game, and maybe even Florida State’s NCAA tournament hopes, on the line, there was only one guy the Seminoles wanted to take the shot. As usual, Al Thornton didn’t let them down.
Thornton’s free throw with 1.5 seconds remaining capped a 25-point, 11-rebound performance and gave Florida State a 67-66 victory over Clemson in Thursday’s opening game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
The ACC’s leading scorer and runner-up for conference player of the year was fouled trying to get off an off-balanced shot in the lane. Admittedly nervous, he missed the first free throw before making the game-winner.
“I had to calm down. … I’d never been in that type of situation before, and the pressure was on,” Thornton said. “I was able to shoot the second free throw very relaxed and with confidence.”
Thornton delivered the defensive play of the game, too.
The 6-foot-8 senior blocked Vernon Hamilton’s layup to deny Clemson what looked like a sure basket in the closing minutes, then drove the baseline on the other end for a dunk that tied the game for the last time.
Florida State (20-11) advanced to Friday’s quarterfinals against top seed North Carolina. The ninth-seeded Seminoles also bolstered their case for a berth in the NCAA tournament, while No. 8 seed Clemson (21-10) may have eliminated itself from contention by losing for the 10th time in 14 games after starting 17-0.
Jason Rich scored 12 points for Florida State, which rallied from a 66-61 deficit with a 3-pointer from Toney Douglas and Thornton’s dunk. Clemson’s Cliff Hammonds turned the ball over with 8.3 seconds left, and the Tigers’ K.C. Rivers fouled Thornton to give the Florida State star a chance to win it from the foul line.
“I came off a triple screen and going shoot the ball, but I saw a gap. They closed it down,” Thornton said. “I pump-faked and I tried to draw the foul. Luckily, I was able to get to the line.”
Clemson felt Rivers made a good defensive play on Thornton, who was coming off a career-high 45-point performance in an overtime victory over Miami.
“It looked like a clean square-up. He kind of faded away. That’s what made it look like a foul, I guess,” the Tigers’ James Mays said. “He came across and got a good block, but I guess the refs saw it otherwise, so you can’t argue with that.”
Thornton was just as surprised he got the call, adding: “I thought we were going to overtime.”
Trevor Booker led Clemson with 18 points and nine rebounds. Hammonds finished with 16 points and Hamilton scored 13.
“Our guys battled and I thought they deserved to have an opportunity to win, but it just didn’t happen,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Clemson swept the season series between the teams, winning 68-66 in Tallahassee on Jan. 3 and 71-58 at home on Feb. 7, when Florida State lost Douglas – the Seminoles’ floor leader – with a broken bone in his right hand.
The sophomore guard missed his team’s next five games, with Florida State losing four of them to put their prospects for a spot in the NCAAs in doubt. Douglas returned the season finale against Miami and played without a protective wrap on his hand Thursday.
Thornton made seven of his first nine shots and finished 9-for-16. He had 18 points at the half, and his long 3-pointer put the Seminoles ahead 38-36 at the break. There were 12 lead changes in the second half, with neither team leading by more than five.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton would not speculate on whether the Seminoles have done enough to ensure an at-large berth in the NCAA tourney. He thought his team made a strong case for a berth last year, but FSU wound up in the NIT.
“Unfortunately, my vote didn’t count,” Hamilton said. “So what I want to do now is just worry about the things we can control.”