March 18, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Dunk City went doink in the face of Florida State’s pesky defense as the Seminoles extended their season with a 58-53 over Florida Gulf Coast in Tuesday night’s opening game of the National Invitation Tournament.
Sophomore Aaron Thomas scored 14 consecutive points in the second half on his way to a game-high 22, and the Seminoles (20-13) made just enough plays at both ends of the floor to record their seventh 20-win season in coach Leonard Hamilton‘s 12 seasons at the helm.
The Seminoles are moving on to face Georgetown, a 77-65 winner over West Virginia, at home on Monday in large part because the grounded the high-flying Eagles (22-13). FGCU, which earned its Dunk City moniker during last season’s storybook run to the NCAA Tournament round of 16, failed to throw down a single dunk against the FSU defense. In fact, the Eagles shot just 39.6 percent from the floor, well below their 47 percent season average.
“They’re extremely athletic, very physical and a tremendous rebounding team,” Hamilton said of the Eagles. “We knew it would be a tremendous challenge. … Our game plan was to try and neutralize them on the boards, because they do such a great job with their physicality and block-out schemes.
“They gave us all that we could handle. We were very fortunate to come out with a victory.”
Beyond harassing the Eagles’ perimeter shooters into a 6-of-19 performance from beyond the 3-point arc, the Seminoles forced 19 turnovers, which they converted into 17 points. Perhaps more impressively, they are still playing basketball despite the absence of senior guard and second-leading scorer Ian Miller, who was a late scratch with a toe injury. In Miller’s absence, Hamilton went deep down his bench early in the game as walk-ons Marquez White, Joell Hopkins and Brandon Allen provided some valuable spot minutes.
Thomas and senior Okaro White did most of the heavy lifting for the `Noles, setting the tone early with a well-executed two-man game, then finishing off the Eagles by combining for 22 of FSU’s final 26 points.
“Me and Aaron have got that brotherly connection,” said White, who scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds. “We’ve both kind of come from tough situations, growing up in life. He’s my roommate and we’re always together. I give him that look like, `Let’s go get it,’ and he’s always on board and looking to ride with me.
“I think that’s what happened in the first half. When we found out Ian wasn’t playing we got in the corner and talked and I said, `We’ve got to start with me and you.’ We dapped it up and got going early.”
While it was Thomas who helped dig the `Noles from a six-point deficit early in the second half with his 14-point scoring burst, it was White who helped finish off the Eagles. His slam follow of a Montay Brandon miss with gave the `Noles the lead for good with 4:57 remaining, 50-49. White added two more free throws on the next possession, but it was his put-back basket with 1:58 remaining which gave the FSU what proved to be an insurmountable 56-51 lead.
White’s greatest contribution, however, may have come after the `Noles were bounced in the second round of the ACC Tournament by eventual champion Virginia, virtually sealing their NCAA Tournament fate. According to Thomas, White and fellow seniors Miller and Robert Gilchrist delivered a simple message:
“Whatever tournament we’re in, let’s just go all out and play hard. Either tournament we were in, we were still able to play for a championship.”
“At the end of the day the biggest opportunity that helped me almost get over not going to the NCAA Tournament was that we lost to Syracuse here on my Senior Night,” White said. “I want to leave here on a `W’; I want my last game at the Civic Center to be a win so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to go all the way to New York and go as far as possible.”
The second step on the way to potential trip to Madison Square Garden would not have been possible without Thomas, who continues to show why he is a star in the making. With the `Noles trailing 37-32 with 13 minutes to play the swingman began his scoring binge with a drive across the lane, punctuated by a tomahawk dunk. Twice the Cincinnati event the scored, but it was his 3-pointer with 8:20 remaining which gave the `Noles a 44-43 lead.
“Aaron put his big boys pants on tonight and stepped up,” Hamilton said.
“I had no idea I had scored 14 in a row,” Thomas said. “The only thing I was worried about was we were down at the time and we just needed to make some aggressive plays down the stretch to get the lead and we did that as a team.”
FGCU and FSU swapped baskets until White’s slam follow put the `Noles in front to stay.
Hamilton was most proud of the way the `Noles collectively responded in the face of adversity against a quality opponent, while staring at the prospect of seven months until playing again.
“I think that our guys, even though we were disappointed … (realized) we were one game short of making the [NCAA] field,” Hamilton said. “That can either fire you up and motivate you or it can deflate your enthusiasm. I think what it did for us was make us a little more determined. I was glad to see that because we’re still basically a young team that’s growing and maturing. Hopefully, this will spring-board us and give us a little bit of confidence for the remainder of the season and hopefully help us as we move on in the future.”