This is the way the games will be in March, the ones that mean the most.
Every shot contested. Hands in passing lanes. Fights for loose balls. The determination to go among bodies and bang for rebounds.
The meaningful games become a test of wills. So it was Saturday as No. 18 Florida State was able to hold off N.C. State 78-73 at the Tucker Center.
It wasn’t a pretty game, not unless you appreciate seeing two teams go eye to eye, neither allowing anything to come easily. But NCAA Tournament games rarely are very stylish, either, and that’s where both the Seminoles and Wolfpack intend to be.
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“This is March,” FSU sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele said. “Teams are more competitive, games are closer. Guys are realizing that the Selection Sunday is coming and they want to be a part of it. So I understand N.C. State’s aggressiveness and passion to win today.”
With a 23-6 overall record and now 11-5 in the ACC, the Noles have no worries when the NCAA Tournament selections are announced. It’s more about their seeding, the location of their first games and their path.
The Pack, 20-9 and 8-8 in the ACC, also believes it will be in the field for a second straight time in Kevin Keatts’ second year as coach. There are two games left in the regular season – at home against Georgia Tech, then at Boston College – before the ACC Tournament in Charlotte. There’s also time to improve.
The game Saturday, Keatts and the players believe, wasn’t decided so much on made free throws or transition scores or defensive stops as it was something more basic: toughness.
“It was a tough, tight game and I feel like down the stretch they got a couple of toughness plays we didn’t get and that made the difference in the game,” Wolfpack sophomore DJ Funderburk said. “Everything else I felt was in our favor. ... If we had matched their toughness at the end of the game we would have won the game. It wasn’t a matchup deficit or anything. We are matched up pretty well. We just need to finish toughness plays, that was it.
“Every game from here on out is going to come down to loose balls and those toughness plays and one or two points. That’s going to be the difference in every game from here on out.”
Funderburk did his part Saturday with 18 points -- hitting nine of 10 free throws -- and nine rebounds. He battled and competed against a deep team with a bevy of big men before fouling out with 1:09 left in regulation and FSU leading 74-70.
Kabengele, who led FSU’s balanced scoring with 16 points, stepped to the line and made both free throws. With six seconds left, he hit two more as the Noles, who missed five of 11 foul shots in the first half, made 19 of 21 in the second.
The Pack prides itself on tough man-to-man defense and played it that way against the Noles, overplaying, contesting, forcing 16 turnovers. The whistles came often and N.C. State ended up with 26 personal fouls to FSU’s 18 but never backed off.
“Sometimes they allow you to play a little more,” Keatts said of the officiating. “I think I even heard Florida State fans say, ‘Let us play a little bit.’ I was for that.”
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton used 10 players in the game and only senior guard P.J. Savoy played fewer than 12 minutes. Keatts used all nine of his players and all put in 10 or more minutes as the two coaches looked for the best matchups, looked for an edge.
The Pack’s Torin Dorn, who played seven minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls, scored all 12 of his points in the second half. Point guard Markell Johnson, after a technical foul late in the first half, knocked down three 3-pointers in the second half as the Pack, while never leading, kept pressuring the Noles.
Keatts had no real answer for why Johnson picked up the “T,” saying the ref told him Johnson “yelled at him.”
“Markell said he said, ‘and one,’” Keatts said.
But Keatts didn’t want to harp on the officiating. It was basketball. It was March basketball.
“We played hard against the No. 18 team on their home floor and had our chances,” Keatts added. “I just think there were a couple of 50-50 balls we obviously didn’t get and they did.”
There it was again: toughness. In March, more of it is needed.