Florida State forward Xavier Gibson (1) chases down the ball ahead of St. Bonaventure forward Da'Quan Cook in the second half of their NCAA Tournament game Friday in Nashville, Tenn. Florida State won, 66-63.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Florida State beat North Carolina twice this season. Did the same to Duke, too.
The Seminoles were a trendy Final Four pick entering the NCAA Tournament, and they were nearly sent home by little St. Bonaventure in their opening game.
WHO: No. 3 seed Florida State vs. No. 6 Cincinnati.
WHAT: Third round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
WHEN: Sunday; time TBD.
WHERE: Nashville, Tenn.
TV: CBS, TNT, TBS or TruTV.
IF WIN: Will play either Gonzaga or Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
But Bernard James scored 19 points and Florida State barely avoided a big upset, rallying to beat the 14th-seeded Bonnies, 66-63, on Friday in a game that left the Seminoles physically and mentally spent.
“That was one of the toughest games we’ve played all season, and that’s all the credit to their team,” Florida State senior Luke Loucks said. “They came out first swinging, and we really didn’t hit back until about 10 minutes to go in the second half. Again, all the credit to them, we really, really had to fight to win that game.”
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton cautioned against thinking his Seminoles took St. Bonaventure lightly. Not with NBA prospect Andrew Nicholson on the roster.
“They were well prepared. They’re loaded with talent. They executed very well,” Hamilton said. “We’re very fortunate to come away with the victory. They won their league. Some teams from the Atlantic 10 have done really well in the NCAA Tournament.”
The third-seeded Seminoles (25-9) shook off a slow start and won their sixth straight game, including their run to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship last week. They will play sixth-seeded Cincinnati on Sunday in the third round of the East Regional.
“We just kept saying over and over again we don’t want to go home,” Loucks said. “We don’t want to watch the rest of this tournament from our couches. In the midst of that, B.J. kept screaming at me, ‘Get me the ball. I’m going to finish.’ When a 6-foot-10 … Air Force vet is screaming at you, you listen.”
James scored 11 in the second half, perhaps none bigger than his dunk off a missed fast-break layup by Loucks that tied it at 52.
The 27-year-old senior forward said he thought Loucks would lob the ball to him, so he kept running.
“I chased it down and was able to dunk it,” James said. “I think that was a pretty big momentum swing for us.”
Nicholson scored 20 points and Demetrius Conger had 14 for St. Bonaventure (20-12), which was trying to win an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1970.
“We didn’t come here to get moral victories,” St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. “We wanted to win. I am as proud of our guys as I’ve ever been with the team that I’ve coached. They’ve done everything we’ve asked. They fought. We just came up a bucket short.”
Florida State used a 16-2 run to take its first lead with 5:15 left on a 3-pointer by Ian Miller. The Seminoles led as much as 60-52 on a dunk by Okaro White with 2:47 left.
The Bonnies hit three 3-pointers in the final 1:43 to stay close. They had the ball down by three in the closing seconds but couldn’t get a decent look from beyond the arc. Da’Quan Cook had his short jumper blocked by White, and the Seminoles ran out the clock for a huge sigh of relief.
Schmidt said he wished he had one last timeout to set up the final play.
“We were right there with them,” Schmidt said. “There’s no negatives about this game. We lost. But we gave a great performance. I am so proud of our guys.”
Loucks had 13 points in Florida State’s first NCAA tournament game in Nashville since 1989. The previous trip didn’t end well; the Seminoles lost as a No. 4 seed to Middle Tennessee.
These Seminoles are seasoned and tested. They ended Duke’s 45-game home winning streak back in January, and beat the Blue Devils again on their way to winning their first ACC tournament title.
“You don’t win the ACC tournament with bad players and coaches,” Schmidt said.
For St. Bonaventure, the Bonnies had a vocal group of fans down from upstate New York rooting them on along with a monk in the stands.
Nicholson, the senior physics major, hit his first six shots and four of five from beyond the arc. He also grabbed seven rebounds while trying to put the final piece into the rebuilding of this program that hadn’t won a postseason game since the 1995 NIT.
“They were fronting the post so denying the entry, and so we just had to run plays they gave me off the block,” Nicholson said. “I had to step out and shoot.”
The Bonnies looked ready to pull off the upset after winning their first-ever Atlantic 10 tournament title, scoring the first seven points of the game, capped by a 3-pointer from Nicholson. They led by as much as 10 in the first half and 34-28 at halftime. They were up 50-44 on a layup by Chris Johnson midway through the second half until they hit a stretch where they missed eight straight shots.
Then the Seminoles showed why they won 15 of 18 heading into this tournament.
Michael Snaer, Florida State’s top scorer, picked up his second foul within the first 3 minutes and didn’t score a point for the first time this season. He played only 5 minutes in the first half and missed all seven of his shots, including five beyond the arc.
But James proved to be more than a match inside for Nicholson. He also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots.
White got the final run started for Florida State with a pair of free throws, and James finished off a missed layup by Loucks with a thundering dunk off a steal by Miller. Miller hit a 3 with 5:15 left to put Florida State ahead to stay. Loucks added a 3, and White dunked to put the Seminoles up 60-52, with the Bonnies seemingly finished.
Then they came back to set up the frenetic finish. Loucks helped seal the win for FSU by hitting three of his four free throws in the final 37.7 seconds.
The Bonnies led by as much as 22-12 on a 3-pointer by Eric Mosley with 10:27 to go in the first half.