ANAHEIM, Calif. – A few weeks ago, before Florida State’s home finale, senior Terance Mann said that he wanted to be remembered, above all else, as a winner.
Same goes for the four other members of FSU’s senior class, all of whom capped their collegiate careers with a 72-58 loss to Gonzaga in the NCAA West region semifinal.
It was a disappointing end to a season that was equal parts fun and historic, but, even after finishing with a loss, the wins are what will define this group.
What else could?
They don’t have the big numbers. They don’t have the individual accolades. And they don’t have the national media poring over their every move.
But they do, however, have wins. Lots of them.
FSU’s four-year seniors, Mann and Koumadje, are officially the “winningest” players in school history, with 98 victories since the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
That includes a record 78 wins over the last three seasons, three consecutive NCAA tournaments, back-to-back Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight run last year and an ACC championship game appearance two weeks ago.
You have to take a deep breath just to say it all out loud.
“History-makers, honestly,” junior guard Trent Forrest said of his senior counterparts. “Their names will go down in the FSU history books.”
And, to be sure, FSU’s other seniors had a hand in it, too.
Sharp-shooting P.J. Savoy thrilled with his 3-point prowess, and FSU likely doesn’t get by No. 1-seed Xavier in last year’s second round without him.
Transfer David Nichols developed into a key reserve in his only year in Tallahassee, and although an injury cut short his dream of making a deep tournament run, there’s no denying the role he played in helping a team get there.
And then there’s Phil Cofer.
FSU’s only fifth-year senior, Cofer’s career embodied the highs and lows that athletes often ride.
From that night, way back in February 2015, when the then-freshman Cofer announced his presence on a national scale with a towering dunk over Duke star Jahlil Okafor …
… to the injury that cost him most of his sophomore season.
And from his triumphant return a year ago, during which he reinvented himself as a dangerous 3-point shooter, led the team in scoring and received a surprise waiver from the NCAA to play another year in Tallahassee, to the foot injury suffered just weeks before the start of the season and the devastating death of his father, Mike, a few months later.
It’s not fair that Cofer’s career ended the way it did, just like it’s not fair that Nichols didn’t get to play in the Sweet 16 after laboring for three years at Albany and it’s not fair that Mann, such a force for his entire career, scored five points on one of eight shooting in his final game.
“I hate to see it,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said, “for David and Phil, especially. …
“My heart goes out to those two guys, who didn’t have an opportunity.”
That’s the thing about the NCAA tournament. It’s a captivating spectacle that has young players leaping out of their seats when they see their names on Selection Sunday, then leaves them teary-eyed in the locker room a week or two later.
Consider that, before the tournament started, fivethirtyeight.com, a website run by stats gurus, gave top-seeded Virginia the best chance of the entire field to win the national title.
The Cavaliers’ odds? Twenty-one percent.
The Duke Blue Devils were right behind them, at 20 percent.
Which means that, for all their defensive prowess, their Hall-of-Fame (or future Hall-of-Fame) coaches and all the soon-to-be millionaires on their rosters, the top two teams in the tournament began with a four-in-five chance of going home unhappy.
It’s the deal that all teams make when they agree to dance in the Dance. Teams that finish in the NIT don’t have this problem.
“That’s life,” Mann said Thursday night. “Sometimes things don’t go your way. You’ve got to fight through it, hold your head high and be positive through it. Because that good energy is going to come back to you.”
Things didn’t go Florida State’s way against Gonzaga, and, in truth, not much went the Seminoles’ way over the entire season.
There was the injury to Cofer, injuries to Mann and Forrest, and the fateful injury to Nichols.
There were missed opportunities in big games, close losses that, had there been a rebound here or a defensive stop there, might have given the Seminoles the boost they needed for a higher tournament seed and a slightly easier road.
Speaking of the road, there were thousands of miles traveled over the last few weeks, maybe more than any team in the country. From Tallahassee to Charlotte (where they essentially played a road game against Duke in the ACC tournament) and back. From Tallahassee to Hartford (where they essentially played a road game against 13th-seeded Vermont) and back. And from Tallahassee to Southern California (where they had a day to adjust to a three-hour time change before meeting top-seeded and west-coast dwelling Gonzaga) and back.
“Some years,” Hamilton said, “you’ll go through a season and you don’t have any issues.
“It did seem like we just had one after another after another.”
Which makes everything they achieved this year that much more meaningful.
Led by the likes of Mann, Cofer and Koumadje, this year’s Seminoles broke a single-season wins record that had stood for 46 years.
And, in a testament to what they’ve done, and to the program’s progress, it’s a good bet that it won’t be another 46 years before it falls again.
“The winning culture is still there,” Mann said. “They’re going to continue to do well. Our coaches are going to continue to bring in great players.”
First, though, they’ll say goodbye to some great players, and goodbye to a team that took their fans and friends on one heck of a ride.
It started in grand fashion with that 81-60 rout of rival Florida in the season-opener – FSU’s fifth straight hoops win over the Gators, who would eventually make the NCAA tournament.
It continued with thrilling wins over LSU (which made the Sweet 16) and Purdue (now in the Elite Eight), memorable ACC triumphs against Syracuse, Louisville, NC State and Virginia Tech, and then a startling surge in Charlotte, where the Seminoles throttled No. 2 UVA, 69-59, in the ACC tournament semifinal.
Beyond that, FSU held off an upset bid against Vermont, sent Murray State and star guard Ja Morant to an early exit and, for a few moments here in Anaheim, looked like they had enough in the reserves to storm back and overtake Gonzaga.
That the Seminoles finally fell short of one more win doesn’t erase all the winning that came before. Both in this season and beyond.
“These kids need to be celebrated,” FSU assistant Stan Jones said. “They’ve battled. They’ve fought. They’ve believed in each other … I’m proud to say I coached them. Because they could’ve folded up. They could’ve been mediocre. They could have thrown in the towel.
“And they’ve not done that one time.”
The feeling here is that this group will be properly celebrated in Tallahassee, both in the wake of this season and in the years to come.
They’ll be part of the highlight videos, part of the annual reunions and, for some, they might one day be part of FSU’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
All of it will be deserved and, after a while, they’ll all be able to move past the sting of losing and appreciate all that they’ve done.
“It’s hard right now,” redshirt sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele said. “But as time goes on, we’ll get over it. And we’ll look back at this season as a good season.”
For now, though, they’re a group of players, with a momentous foundation of seniors about to walk out the door, savoring every remaining moment that they have together.
“It’s not the way we wanted the season to end,” Koumadje said. “But the legacy of this team will last forever. And these guys, we’ll be brothers for life.”