WATCH: Leonard Hamilton discusses FSU’s loss in the ACC tournament championship game
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Playing in their third game in three days, against a team loaded with future pros and in front of a heavily partisan crowd, the Florida State men’s basketball team could hardly have asked for a better first half in Saturday’s ACC tournament final.
The Seminoles went toe-to-toe with the Duke Blue Devils, led for a long stretch and by as many as eight points, and went into the break tied and with the promise of a potentially classic second half to come.
But that classic half never materialized.
With superstar freshman Zion Williamson leading the way, Duke found another gear while Florida State’s shooting touch floundered in a 73-63 defeat at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.
Mfiondu Kabengele (14 points, three rebounds) and Terance Mann (12, eight) each earned All-Tournament team honors for the Seminoles (27-7), who will return to Tallahassee Sunday morning and await their NCAA tournament destination.
The Blue Devils (29-5) claimed their record 21st ACC title.
“I thought Duke raised their level of intensity, probably right at the beginning of the second half,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I didn’t think we matched that level of athleticism and aggressiveness.
“I thought they were maybe jumping a little higher, moving a little quicker, ran a little faster than we did during that period.”
As a result, the Blue Devils turned what had been a close game into an uphill climb for FSU in the span of about nine minutes.
After Terance Mann got the Seminoles started out of the break with a 3-pointer, the Blue Devils launched an 18-5 run that had FSU playing catch-up for the remainder of the contest.
Duke’s Williamson scored a game-high 21 points – bringing his three-game total to 80 – on his way to tournament MVP honors.
But he wasn’t the only one causing problems.
All four of Duke’s freshman starters scored in double-figures, with R.J. Barrett (17 points, nine rebounds) and Tre Jones (18 points, six rebounds) both making plays in critical moments.
Williamson is virtual lock to be selected No. 1 in the NBA draft later this year, and fellow freshmen Barrett, Jones and Cam Reddish are all expected to be future pros as well.
WATCH: Terance Mann discusses FSU’s loss to Duke and looks forward to the NCAA tournament
“It’s hard when you have athletes like they do,” FSU guard Trent Forrest said. “I mean, we have athletes. But none of us jump that high or anything like that. It’s just hard competing with that.”
The Seminoles, though, did compete.
As they often have, both in this season and beyond, the Seminoles regrouped, rallied and gave themselves a chance to get back into the game.
Despite missing 12 of its first 15 shots in the second half, FSU held Duke scoreless long enough to trim its deficit to 63-58 with 4:43 to play.
But the Seminoles could get no closer, and found themselves down by double-digits again a few moments later thanks to a difficult jumpshot from Jones and a 3-pointer by Reddish.
“We got it to five, and you know how we are – we were ready to come back,” Mann said. “We had a lot of good looks. And we also missed the front end of a one-and-one.
“I think that just happens. That’s basketball.”
Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder about how things might have played out had the Seminoles shot better in the second half. They finished 8 of 32 (25.0 percent) over the last 20 minutes, finished the game 20 of 63 (31.7 percent) and, most damaging, connected on just five of 18 layup attempts.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, hit at nearly a 60-percent clip after a relatively cold first half.
“We had bunnies that we missed. A lot of shots that we usually make just didn’t go for us,” Forrest said. “With three games in three days in the ACC, eventually your legs are going to wear out. So, I feel like maybe a little fatigue probably set in for us, too.
“But other than that, we just couldn’t hit shots.”
Then again, the other team might have had something to do with it, too.
“I’ve got to give them credit,” Hamilton said. “I thought that they, mentally and emotionally, were at a different level than they were in the first half. … We got beat by a team that played better and that hopefully we can learn from.”
Do that, and the Seminoles will likely be a tough out in the NCAA tournament.
Saturday’s loss was just FSU’s second since mid-January – the other came at No. 3 North Carolina three weeks ago – and the Seminoles have already matched a school record for wins in a season.
Their place in the NCAA tournament has been secure for weeks. The only question left is what road they’ll travel.
Count the Hall-of-Fame coach in the opposing locker room as a believer.
“I expect them to be a very high seed,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said. “I would be shocked if they weren’t a three- or four-seed.
“And Leonard and I are really good friends, you know. He has a program there (at Florida State). He doesn’t (only) have a team. It’s built on great kids, a lot of kids and playing good defense.”
Besides, even with the NCAA tournament looming, the Seminoles are unlikely to play another stretch like the one they just finished here in Charlotte – against three ranked teams in three days – any time soon.
At least not until the first weekend in April.
Maybe that’s why Hamilton still had a small smile on his face as he wrapped up his post-game media session.
“We didn’t play well enough to beat a very good team in the finals of a championship tournament. That’s what I take away from it,” he said.
“Now what we want to do is go back and evaluate it for what it is, evaluate our shortcomings, see how we can improve on them and regroup and try to prepare ourselves to get ready to participate in the NCAA tournament.”