ATLANTA — Years ago, when Florida State was in the midst of one of the longest NCAA tournament droughts in the nation, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton sold to his players a vision that became a reality on Sunday at Philips Arena.
He spoke of becoming a winning program in the ACC, and about winning championships. He spoke of moments like the ones his team experienced here on Sunday, when Florida State held off North Carolina in an 85-82 victory in the ACC tournament championship game.
The victory gave the third-seeded Seminoles (24-9) their first ACC mens basketball championship of any kind.
Afterward, FSU players gathered inside a jubilant locker room, and they brought with them souvenirs. On their way off the court the Seminoles peeled any ACC tournament signage off the walls they could find, and they stored placed them inside their lockers like trophies.
We believed, said Florida State senior Deividas Dulkys, who scored 16 points on Sunday. We believed. There was a lot of speculation [about] coach Ham [about him] might not being there. We wanted this.
That Hamiltons status at Florida State once seemed insecure was never more distant a memory than it was on Sunday. The Seminoles built a 16-point lead in the first half, led by nine at halftime and then persevered through the Tar Heels spirited second-half rally.
UNC (29-5), the tournaments top seed, trailed by as many as 14 points during the second half. But the Tar Heels gradually chipped away, and they trailed just 83-82 after Kendall Marshall made a 3-pointer with 31 seconds to play.
Dulkys made a pair of free throws with four seconds to play, and then UNC freshman P.J. Hairston, whose three second-half 3-pointers helped fuel his teams rally, missed a long 3-point attempt as the final buzzer sounded.
In defeat, the Tar Heels failed to avenge the 90-57 loss they suffered at Florida State on Jan. 14. That defeat was the most lopsided of Roy Williams nine seasons as UNCs coach, and he said later he felt his team gave up.
Faced with similar circumstances on Sunday, trailing by 16 points in the first half, the Heels didnt. But Marshall, for one, admitted that at one point in the first half he thought, Not again.
I mean, that was kind of embarrassing to be down by that in the first half, said UNC senior Tyler Zeller, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. But we knew that we could either give up and go back to 33 or we could make a run.
The Tar Heels made a run, but they never overcame their poor start. Florida State, led by 18 points from Michael Snaer, held the lead for all but seven seconds.
The Seminoles followed a difficult road to their first ACC championship, beating Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals on Saturday before defeating UNC on Sunday. Snaer, named the tournaments MVP, said he preferred it that way.
Im glad that we got a chance to play Duke and North Carolina, so there wouldnt be no excuses people saying that maybe if they would have played Duke, they would have put [us] out, Snaer said. You know, we played the best teams in our league, and we overcame them.
Hamilton, the Florida State coach, said afterward that his validation had not yet come that the magnitude of the moment had not yet registered. UNC coach Roy Williams, meanwhile, had sat in the same chair moments earlier and praised his teams comeback, and its effort. The Heels again played without junior forward John Henson, who suffered a left wrist injury in UNCs quarterfinal victory against Maryland on Friday.
[I] really like the way my team came back and fought, Williams said. I liked the toughness that we showed.
But overall, throughout, Florida State was the tougher team the hungrier team. The Seminoles, known for their aggressive, suffocating defense, held UNC to 39.4 percent shooting.
And on the games final play, FSU forced Zeller to throw his inbounds pass to Hairston, who was the third option on the play. After Hairston missed the shot, the Seminoles sprinted from their bench and began a wild celebration.
They had entered ACC play with two losses against Ivy League schools, and then opened their conference schedule with a 20-point loss at Clemson. After all of it, though, the Seminoles became champions on the same day that Hamiltons vision became a reality.