Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Seminoles Edge LA Tech 78-75, Advance To NIT Final Four

Last year, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs came to Tallahassee and ended FSU’s season in the first round of the NIT. This time, with a trip to Madison Square Garden on the line, the Seminoles exacted some revenge by defeating LA Tech 78-75 Wednesday night.

FSU got off to a hot start in this one, claiming a 14-3 lead six minutes in. Broken plays turned into easy ‘Nole buckets, and the Bulldogs, though using ample clock, looked uncomfortable on offensive, starting just 1-9 from the floor and noticeably struggling with the Seminoles’ length. As opposed to the zone played at each end in Florida State’s last contest against Georgetown, each team came out man-to-man defensively, with LA Tech employing a chaotic half-court trap that they extended to a full-court press when it began giving FSU problems.

The Bulldog defense did just that, creating a rather sloppy game, and they trimmed the ‘Nole lead to 20-15 half way through the opening stanza. The visitors’ gritty play paid dividends, and they took their first lead, 30-28, on a three with a few minutes left in the half. FSU tightened things up defensively with a little late zone to cease the ‘Dogs penetration, and went to the half up 37-33. It was an odd half– although frenetic, the teams combined for just nine turnovers. Shooting was the issue: LA Tech closed out the first half with a field goal percentage of 32%, while the Seminoles were at 38%. Okaro White led all scorers at the break, with 14 points.

Tech amped up its press in the second half, and it paid immediate dividends: they forced four FSU turnovers in the first three minutes and opened the half on a 10-2 run to claim a 43-39 lead. Bulldogs head coach Michael White characterized the press as “the key to the second half.” The ‘Dogs also sped things up offensively, taking the ball at the Seminole defense fearlessly. Per White: “We wanted a track meet.”

The officiating tightened up considerably in the second frame, and the ‘Noles absorbed a blow when White picked up his fourth foul and headed for the bench with over 15 minutes remaining. Continuing to suffocate the Seminoles with their press, the Bulldogs pushed their lead to seven, at 51-44, with 13:47 left.

FSU clawed its way back and took a 59-58 lead on a three-pointer from sophomore-phenom Aaron Thomas. The Bulldogs fought back to force a 60-60 tie, but Ian Miller’s tre with 7:21 sent the Tucker Center crowd into a frenzy and gave Florida State a 63-60 cushion, as White continued to sit.

White finally returned with 4:56 left and the Seminoles up 65-64. FSU again pulled away, extending to a 71-64 lead before two buckets from the resilient ‘Dogs tightened the tally to 71-68 with 2:49 to play.  Montay Brandon banked in a tough runner as the shot clock ran down and brought the lead to 73-68 as the game ticked under a minute. A big stop gave the ‘Noles possession, and after a timeout, senior Ian Miller seemingly punched the Seminoles’ ticket to the Big Apple with a deep three that made it 76-68 with just 41.3 left.

It then became a trap and foul — and hope — situation for LA Tech. Thomas and White each split from the line though, and after a ‘Dog long ball, the score was 78-75 as FSU inbounded with 18.6 remaining. Tech then tied up Miller in the corner. Seminole coach Leonard Hamilton thought Miller should have been granted a timeout, but the refs called a jump ball, giving the Bulldogs possession and a shot to tie it up. But Raheem Appleby’s attempt — a solid look — glanced off the heel, sending Montay Brandon to the line with 4.8 left with a chance to ice the win.

Brandon, however, missed both foul shots, and Tech rushed the ball up and got a wide open look from the baseline, but Appleby — who made his first two threes — saw his effort again bound off the rim, and FSU escaped with a 78-75 victory.

As has been the case throughout the tourney, Thomas again shouldered the second-half offensive load. After notching a quiet seven points in the first half, he finished with a game-high 21 points and a team-high nine boards. Despite spending most of the second half on the bench, White finished with 20 points.

The Seminoles showed their appreciation to what was a raucous home crowd for the final time this season after the close win. They then headed to center court and danced as Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared in the Tucker Center. The boisterous Tallahassee crowd — the last two games have probably produced the loudest fan support this season — was also appreciated by Hamilton. He went so far as to say that the crowd “had as much to do with the outcome of the game as some of the guys on the court.”

The importance of the chance to make a deep tournament run is not lost on FSU. Hamilton described it as “a tremendous opportunity for growth with as young as we are.” And while the head coach’s mind is on cultivating for the future, seniors like Miller are happy to have a chance to go out winners. Said Miller: “we’re in it. We might as well win it.”

The ‘Noles can certainly use the time to heal up: Miller logged 29 minutes on a foot he described as “60%.” No problem, though– he also mused that he “might be the toughest guy in the country.”

If payback served as motivation for FSU in this one, they can approach their next game with the same mindset. They’ll face the Minnesota Golden Gophers in a semifinal on Tuesday. The Gophers topped the Seminoles 71-61 on December 3rd, when they hosted the ‘Noles in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The other semifinal will feature Clemson against the winner of Cal and SMU (in progress at the time of publication).

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