TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Back in September, a few weeks before the start of college basketball season and several months before the Florida State Seminoles would embark on one of the most memorable runs in school history, Leonard Hamilton had a conversation with his team about ladders.
Meaning the ladders standing under the basket, where championship teams rise and cut down the nets to commemorate their prize.
“I told them nobody is standing on the ladder and saying, ‘I’m No. 4. Or No. 5,’” Hamilton said. “Only one team has a chance to stand up and say, ‘I’m No. 1.’
“That takes a special effort and a special focus.”
And a special team.
Hamilton’s Seminoles fit the bill in every fashion and, by virtue of their 80-62 win over Boston College on Saturday, climbed a ladder and stood tall over the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
FSU, 26-5 overall and 16-4 in the ACC, is the league’s regular-season champion for the first time ever and will enter next week’s conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.
WATCH: Noles claim ACC title with win over BC
“Needless to say, I can’t tell you how proud I am of our team,” Hamilton said. “These guys have bought into the unselfish spirit that has allowed them to be successful. And I’m so proud of them. …
“These teenagers are growing into young adults, and for us to win our first ACC (regular-season) championship with this style and with this system, but, more than anything else, with the attitudes these guys display, makes me very proud.”
A celebration befitting the moment began as soon as the clock hit zero.
Within moments, the players and staff all had on garnet t-shirts celebrating their championship.
Gold confetti fell into a sea on the floor – and onto Hamilton’s head.
A video package featuring congratulations from players and support staff throughout Hamilton’s tenure played on the arena’s videoboard.
And a brand-new banner in the rafters, tantalizingly rolled up throughout the game, was unfurled as the Seminole Sound pep band played, “We are the Champions” across the arena.
— FSU Hoops (@FSUHoops) March 8, 2020
“I was somewhat emotional,” Hamilton said. “Because we want so much, as a staff, for our players to enjoy this moment.”
The centerpiece of it all, though, was the ladders. One on each end of the floor, and with enough scissors and twine for everyone.
First up, of course, was Trent Forrest, the senior playing in his final home game. Already the “winningest” player in program history, Forrest was honored in a pre-game Senior Day ceremony along with dozens of friends and family from his nearby hometown of Chipley, Fla.
The game’s lopsided nature didn’t allow Forrest to add much to his stat totals – he had six points and three rebounds in just 20 minutes – but there’s little doubt about how he’ll remember his final game in Tallahassee.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Forrest said. “Just to know that I’m kind of a leader on the team and be able to get up there and cut down the nets and do what hasn’t been done in school history – with it being my last year and just being able to accomplish this – going up there, you get chills. Because you see how far we’ve come over these last few years.”
One by one, everyone in garnet and gold took a turn on the ladder. Players, assistant coaches, support staff and trainers all had a piece.
But when there remained only one more bit to cut, there was no doubt whose time it was.
Hamilton, the 71-year-old coach who more than 17 years ago took over a program that had won a total of 33 games in the three seasons prior to his arrival, stepped out of the crowd and onto the first rung.
What a moment. Leonard Hamilton climbs up the ladder on his home floor to cut down the remaining net. pic.twitter.com/dMH9LGdXO7
— Tim Linafelt / FSU (@Tim_Linafelt) March 7, 2020
He’s long said that moments like these aren’t about him, and that he’s far more interested in seeing the players reflect on all they’ve accomplished, rather than reflect on his own achievements.
But on this occasion, there were plenty of people in the building who were happy to do the celebrating for him.
That includes the thousands of fans who stayed to share in the revelry, as well as all of the players who helped put him there.
“He doesn’t even really talk about it to us,” Forrest said. “But I know that inside, and once we get to the team, by ourselves, I know he’s going to be a happy coach.
“This was definitely something I wanted to help him get before I left.”
But not the only thing.
Because once the fans had finally filed out and the nets had been cut down, a reality also started to slowly settle in: The Seminoles aren’t yet finished.
They want to go to Greensboro, N.C., next week and win the ACC tournament. They want to enter the NCAA tournament as a high seed – likely a No. 2, but maybe a No. 1 – and enjoy a lengthy run in March Madness.
And yes, they want to spend the first weekend in April a few hours north. The 2020 Final Four is set to be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
As much as they enjoyed their celebration here on Saturday, the Seminoles couldn’t help but think of more celebrations to come.
“I just feel that there’s more enjoyment out there that I don’t want to miss,” Hamilton said with a grin. “I want to milk this thing for all I can. You know you get an orange and you want to (squeeze) all the juice out of it? I want to keep (squeezing) the juice out of this orange.”
— FSU Hoops (@FSUHoops) March 8, 2020
The game itself served as something of a coronation.
Freshman Balsa Koprivica matched a career-high with 15 points and senior Dominik Olejniczak added 14 for the Seminoles, who never trailed and led by as many as 23 in the second.
Otherwise, the Seminoles dominated in virtually every fashion. They held advantages in shooting, rebounding, bench points, points in the paint and steals.
Each of the 12 Seminoles to check in before the final media timeout scored at least two points, and popular reserves Justin Lindner, Travis Light, Harrison Prieto and Will Miles closed things out over the last two-plus minutes.
By then, the celebration was well underway – made official when the final score of Virginia’s win over Louisville flashed on the arena scoreboard. Had the Cardinals won, they’d have technically shared the regular-season crown with FSU earning the No. 1 seed in ACC tournament by virtue of its two wins over Louisville.
But forget all that.
The standings are crystal clear and FSU is alone at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Forrest said “From where we started when I first got here, to now being one of the top teams in the ACC, you think about the journey. You think about the process that you’ve been there to get here.”