ATLANTA — Michael Snaer wouldn't let go. At some point, he had been handed a cardboard ACC logo, and he carried it around Philips Arena like it was the real trophy, even when he was hoisted up to sit on the rim above his teammates, the most valuable player of the championship team, one of the nets hanging around his neck.
A day earlier, the Florida State guard had described the title-game matchup with North Carolina as "validation or vengeance," referring to the Seminoles' 33-point win against the Tar Heels in January. Now, he had the conference in the palm of his hand.
This was validation: With an 85-82 win against No. 4 North Carolina, No. 17 Florida State won its first ACC title. This isn't an easy party to crash, but the Seminoles became the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to win it since Maryland in 2004. And the Seminoles took down the titans in consecutive games.
This was validation: Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who grew up in Gastonia, became the first black coach to win an ACC title. Not that he was buying any talk of validation, not for himself, not for his team. He has bigger goals in mind for the program: Not one ACC title, but several. Not breaking the ACC's blue-blood monopoly, but becoming a part of it.
"We're not just some random team from Florida," Seminoles guard Luke Loucks said. "We're in the thick of things every year. Coach Ham has done a great job rebuilding this program and he's going to continue to do that. Maybe now we can finally get a little bit of respect from the conference."
It's been a long haul for Hamilton, and he's taking the long view. He talked at length about looking forward to Loucks' wedding and being Godparent to Snaer's children, a speech straight out of the Tom Izzo playbook. But it was, and is, the only way to approach a basketball job at a football school: With perspective.
When he took over in 2002, there was no quick fix, no instant turnaround. He has done it the hard way, recruiting players who fit his grind-it-out style to be sure, but also teaching one-dimensional scorers how to play defense and polishing raw big men into finished products.
In 2009, Toney Douglas cried when Florida State made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years. Sunday, Hamilton laughed when asked if he had considered how his team might be seeded.
"We haven't had the luxury over the years of worrying about what seed we get," Hamilton said, chuckling. "We just wanted to get into the tournament."
It hasn't been easy, but then again, it hasn't been an easy season for Florida State, either. The Seminoles went 0-2 against the Ivy League, 0-3 if you count their baffling loss at Boston College, but they distinguished themselves in the final seconds of games. Snaer beat buzzers in Durham and Blacksburg, Va. In Atlanta, the Seminoles did it with defense, fighting off would-be tying shots from Seth Curry and P.J. Hairston.
Sunday, as the celebration continued on the court, Hamilton shared a prolonged conversation with North Carolina coach Roy Williams in an anteroom as Williams exited the podium and Hamilton arrived. Williams, an Asheville native, had moments earlier described them as "homeboys from North Carolina" while talking of his respect for Hamilton.
"Yes, he's an African American and I'm white redneck or whatever," Williams said, "but I consider him a friend."
Hamilton walked away with a huge smile on his face. He still had the other net, the one Snaer didn't get, around his neck. For the moment, he wasn't just Williams' friend or colleague. He was his elite peer: like Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the coach of an ACC champion.