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March 8, 2007

Noles finally get over Clemson hump, 67-66

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TAMPA Sporting new long-sleeved shirts with the words "Whatever It Takes" across the front, the Florida State basketball team somehow found a way to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive on Thursday afternoon.

And maybe it wasn't the prettiest display of last-minute basketball, but the 67-66 victory over Clemson certainly looked good enough for a Florida State team that has been on the wrong end of so many late-game losses in the last few years.

"There is no question you could see our kids really wanted the game," FSU associate head coach Stan Jones said. "It wasn't necessarily pretty, but today they just grinded it out. It's like Al McGuire always said, survive and advance."

Senior forward Al Thornton's free throw with 1.5 seconds remaining gave FSU players and coaches a reason to finally exhale on Thursday. Though there was no guarantee of an NCAA tournament bid if the Seminoles won, they knew they had no shot at dancing if they lost for a third time against the Tigers.

That's why Jones said the coaching staff made certain that the players understood the first-round game was the only thing they could control when it came to talking about the NCAA tournament.

"Today was about how we have not played well against Clemson," Jones said. "It was about us not letting Clemson sweep us three games in one season and getting that off our backs in case there were NCAA implications. It was about beating Clemson and getting that off our back. We've been on this kick since the N.C. State game. This is your last opportunity, and you have to take advantage of this opportunity or you are going to be playing in the three-letter tournament instead of the four-letter tournament."

Thornton's performance certainly elicited more than a handful of four-letter words from the Clemson fans in attendance.

Just a few days after becoming the third player in school history to earn first-team All-ACC honors, Thornton made believers out of a crowd of 22,269 fans at the St. Pete Times Forum.

He scored 18 points in the first half, and led all scorers with 25 points (and 11 rebounds) in a game that was labeled "must-win" for both teams.

But it was a huge 3-pointer by sophomore guard Toney Douglas that breathed life into the Seminoles when they needed it most. With FSU down 66-61 with 3:09 remaining, Douglas hit an open 3-pointer in transition his only 3-pointer of the game to cut the lead to two points.

"We were coming down in transition and it was like a one-on-three really," Douglas said. "I drove the ball all the way down the court and I pulled it back out and all three defenders for Clemson were under the basket and I was wide open and I was able to knock the jumpshot down."

Thornton then decided to take over the game in a way that only he can. He blocked Clemson's next shot attempt a layup by Trevor Booker and grabbed the rebound. Then, on the other end of the floor, he got the ball on the left wing and drove baseline for a spectacular dunk in traffic that tied the game with 1:39 remaining.

With the game tied and less than a minute remaining, FSU failed to get off a quality shot and had to watch in horror as Clemson secured a loose ball to set up what looked like the game's final possession. But FSU guards Douglas, Jason Rich, and Isaiah Swann combined to force a over-and-back violation by Clemson's Cliff Hammonds that gave the Seminoles the ball with eight seconds remaining.

Hamilton then drew up a play that had Thornton coming off a series of three staggered screens and the All-American candidate drew a foul with 1.5 seconds remaining.

Thornton missed the first free throw but made the second, and gave FSU its first ACC tournament victory since 2003.

"It didn't exactly go as planned," FSU guard Isaiah Swann said. "Al was supposed to make the first one and miss the second. But I'll take the final result."

That result leaves FSU still in contention for the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 1998.

The Tigers (21-10) entered the game ranked 36th in the Ratings Percentage Index, meaning the victory by FSU gives the Seminoles five wins over top-50 teams in the RPI. Only 15 teams in the country, including eight from the ACC, have more top-50 wins.

A win over North Carolina today would give FSU a fourth win over a top-15 RPI team, something Hamilton can only hope will help his team offset a 7-9 record in ACC play.

"I think we are a quality team and I think we deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament," Hamilton said.

Talk about it on the Tribal Council or the Hoops Message Board.

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