March 26, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Okaro White and his Florida State men's basketball teammates are headed back to New York after surviving the longest 40 seconds of the season to claim a spot in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals with a 78-75 win over Louisiana Tech.
Despite leading 76-68 with 40 seconds remaining, the Seminoles and their raucous Donald L. Tucker Center crowd were unable to exhale until Raheem Appleby's 3-pointer from the corner caromed off the front of the rim as the horn sounded.
"Everything just stopped," FSU sophomore swingman Montay Brandon said, describing the final seconds. "It was definitely like a roller coaster out there. We kept thinking the game was over and they just kept fighting back."
The Seminoles (22-13) had just enough fight, and good fortune, to find their way back to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 1997 and fulfill their mission. They will meet Minnesota Tuesday night in a rematch of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge game won by the Gophers early in the season.
"We're all focused on one goal, which is to accomplish something the school has never accomplished - get an NIT Championship in Madison Square Garden," said Brandon, who contributed seven of his 10 points over the final nine minutes.
And no Seminole is happier than White, who was born in Brooklyn and lived on Long Island until he was 11. White was off to a monster start in his home finale before picking up his third and fourth fouls just four minutes into the second half.
"What was there, almost 16 minutes left?" White said. "I didn't want to end my career like that. I'm proud of my brothers. They went out there and fought the whole game and I was able to come back in toward the end. ...
"It's very special to have my last games in college played in New York where it all started. We were able to go to Brooklyn last year and win that tournament. All my family was there. Now I've got another opportunity. It will be good for them to see me play my last games."
White scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds, despite playing just 22 minutes. The Seminoles were trailing 45-44 when White headed to the bench with 15:57 and quickly saw that deficit grow to 51-44.
That's when the Seminole sophomores, led by Aaron Thomas, Boris Bojanovsky and Brandon - with modest but important contributions from senior Ian Miller - came to the rescue. Thomas scored nine of his game-high 21 points in a four-minute stretch as the Seminoles went on a 15-7 run. It was Thomas' 3-pointer with 9:38 remaining that gave the `Noles a 59-58 edge.
Smith (16 points) countered with an uncontested layup, but Brandon forged a 60-60 deadlock by making the second of two free throw attempts. Miller's lone 3-pointer of the game with 7:17 remaining gave the Seminoles a 63-60 lead they never relinquished.
Louisiana Tech (29-8) pulled within 65-64 with 4:56 remaining, but White's return to the floor seemed to inspire the `Noles, who ran off six unanswered points for a bit of breathing room.
The Seminoles, however, were never totally comfortable against the Bulldogs full-court pressure, which forced five FSU turnovers in the first three minutes of the second half to turn a 39-33 deficit into a 43-39 lead.
Louisiana Tech parlayed 15 Seminole turnovers into 18 points over the course of the game.
"We wanted a track meet," Bulldogs coach Michael White said. "In the first half we didn't really get that. (Turnovers were) the key to the second half. It was the key to overcoming a poor offensive performance. ....To play with that energy level, to fly around the court like that, especially when you're down, was really important."
The Bulldogs missed 16 of their first 20 shots and trailed by as many as 11 in the first half, which ended with the Seminoles holding a 37-33 lead.
White was the spark in the first half, scoring 14 points and snaring six rebounds.
"I was really feeling well when I came out for shoot-around," White said. "I just tried to stay aggressive. They were a little smaller inside. I tried to take advantage and I got it going in the first half, but unfortunately I was in foul trouble and I didn't get to have that spectacular night. I'm glad we went out there and fought and got the win."
White's young teammates had his back.
"We all knew we had to step up, especially with Okaro on the bench," Brandon said. "He carried us in the first half. ... We knew we had to make plays so we could win the game."
"We're just believing in one another," Thomas said. "We don't have guys worried about their numbers. We've all bought in to play hard and play (defense). Everybody brings something to the table."