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July 14, 1997

1996-97 Season in Review

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The statement was made in Florida State's Madison Square Garden locker room after the Seminoles capped a wild season with a tough, 82-73 loss to Michigan in the championship game of the National Invitational Tournament. Said FSU's Kerry Thompson, "Florida State basketball is back." The Seminoles fought through injuries and adversity but stuck together and finished the year on a high note with a stirring postseason run to the NIT Final Four. A 20-12 record and an NIT runner-up finish was the reward for Florida State's perseverance.

Despite returning all five starters and its top six players from the previous season, Florida State began the 1996-97 campaign with guarded optimism. A newcomer, either junior college transfer Thompson or freshman Devonaire Deas, needed to step in and be the Tribe's starting point guard after LaMarr Greer, the starter at the point the previous two seasons, was moved to the wing. Corey Louis needed to return to his freshman All-ACC form after an inconsistent sophomore year. Greer needed to learn to play away from the ball for the first time in his career. And somebody needed to take some of the scoring burden off of James Collins, FSU's only double figure scorer in 1995-96.

It took some time and some belief in itself, but most of the questions had positive answers and the 1996-97 Florida State season will be looked back upon by Seminole fans as a year in which the program re-established itself. The highlights included: a school-record four wins against teams that spent part of the year in the Associated Press Top 5; the emergence of Kerry Thompson and Randell Jackson as All-ACC caliber players; the all-around play of James Collins; and, of course, the Seminoles' first postseason appearance in four years.

The season opened with a pair of convincing wins at home in November. FSU thumped Southwestern Louisiana 96-70 and Rive 79-54 in its first two games behind the play of Louis. The Miami native let everyone know that he was ready for a monster year by averaging 22.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in those games.

But on the day of FSU's third game, a 93-56 win over Florida Atlantic, a disturbing trend for the season developed with Louis. He underwent left knee surgery to repair torn cartilage and missed the next four games. Louis missed three more games late in the year with a plantar fascitis injury in his right foot and was rarely at full strength during the season.

At 3-0, Florida State headed into its first major challenge of the season - its Atlantic Coast Conference opener at 10th ranked Duke, a team the Tribe had yet to defeat away from home since joining the league. The Seminoles responded to the challenge, even without Louis, and were poised for an upset and a breakthrough into the national rankings.

FSU was in control throughout and led by as many as 10 points in the second half. A patented Duke run tied the game in the final minute but Florida State had a chance to win on its final possession. Jackson missed a short baseline jumper with five seconds to g. Greer grabbed the rebound but his 12-footer at the buzzer bounced off the front and back of the but did not fall forcing overtime. Duke persevered in the extra session and won 72-66. The loss did not damage FSU's psyche though, as the Seminoles rebounded with a season-high six straight wins, their longest winning streak since the 1992-93 season.

The run started with a 108-84 win at Jacksonville when the Tribe set a school-record by hitting 14 three-pointers. Collins enjoyed the return to his hometown with 23 points while Thompson, who won the starting guard job away from Deas prior to the Duke game, added 12 points and 10 assists. A 100-62 victory over Tennessee State followed.

Next was Florida State's 79-65 win over Florida in the Milk Challenge that marked the return of Louis. Collins led the Seminoles' third win in four Milk Challenge meetings with the Gators by going for 24 points with seven rebounds and five assists. Fellow senior Kirk Luchman added 15 points and 14 rebounds.

Home wins over Marist (76-48) and Butler (87-68) were highlighted by Louis. He scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds against the Red Foxes and had 22 points and seven boards versus the Bulldogs.

FSU's first ACC win came next, a 71-51 domination of NC State at home, and ran the winning streak to six straight. Collins led with 16 points while Geoff Brower came off the bench for his best performance of the season with 15 points.

At 9-1, Florida State was then hit with its first real on-court adversity of the year. Home games with Virginia and Clemson then a road contest at Georgia Tech, pegged for the bottom of the ACC, were next on the Tribe's schedule. Three wins could have pushed FSU to 12-1, 4-1 in league play, and into the nation's Top 20. Instead, the Seminoles lost all three games, although they led in the second half of each.

Florida State was hurt during the three-game skid by its lack of big plays down the stretch. First was a late game breakdown versus the Cavaliers. FSU led by four at halftime but managed just one field goal in the game's final six minutes in the 64-61 setback. Against No. 5 Clemson, missed several opportunities to take control in the second half on the way to a 76-70 loss. At Georgia Tech, the Seminoles led by six points with 13 minutes to go but converted just two field goals in the next nine minutes to let a possible victory turn into a 71-58 defeat.

The lack of a perimeter offensive threat besides Collins was a concern as Greer and Brower combined to play 41 minutes against the Yellow Jackets and scored just three points. Their inability to score made defending Collins, who scored just seven points on 3-of-17 shooting in the game, easier. Freshman Ron Hale was inserted into the starting lineup in Florida State's next game, a venture out of the ACC at Seton Hall. Hale responded with 10 points and seven rebounds and Luchman returned to his home state of New Jersey with a 17-point, 12-rebound effort off the bench. The result was a 67-56 win over the Pirates.

With a 10-4 record, but just a 1-4 mark in ACC play, the Seminoles were in a must-win situation when they returned home to face eventual Final Four participant North Carolina. The game with the Tar Heels open a stretch of six ranked opponents in FSU's next eight games.

Playing some of its best basketball of the season, the Tribe pulled away from UNC late and won 84-71. Thompson was flawless scoring 15 points with 10 assists and no turnovers. Collins led the attack with 22 points while Louis added 15 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots.

A trip to fourth ranked Wake Forest was next and the Seminoles' inability to close out a game resurfaced. FSU led by as many as 13 points in the opening half and found itself tied with the Demon Deacons with less than five minutes to go but fell 61-58. The Tribe missed a pair of chances to force overtime in the final five seconds.

Florida State finished its first trip around the ACC schedule with a stirring 74-70 win over No. 5 Maryland at home. Hale sparked the win with his best performance of the year a 17-point, four-rebound effort while Jackson had 20 points and nine rebounds. The win was FSU's first ever over an AP Top 5 ranked team at home.

The start to the Seminoles second run through the ACC was not as pleasant. FSU lost four of its next five games - at Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland and at home to Duke. The Tribe led Virginia with less than 10 minutes to play but collapsed and lost 73-60. Florida State was never in the game at UNC and was handed its worst defeat of the year, 90-62. Jackson sat out the loss at Maryland with a hip pointer as the Terrapins gained revenge by a 73-57 count and played just four minutes in an 89-79 loss to the Blue Devils two nights later.

FSU's only win during the stretch was a 64-62 home decision over Georgia Tech in which a new late-game hero emerged for the Seminoles. Thompson scored 16 points, the last two on a 13-foot jumper from the lane with 2.5 seconds remaining to give the Tribe the win.

Florida State needed a chance to catch its breath after the 1-4 stretch. Owning a 13-9 record and 4-9 mark in the ACC, the Seminoles' chance for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth was slipping away. FSU needed to win its final four regular season games and make a solid showing in the ACC Tournament to have a chance. It would have to do it without Louis, who sustained a plantar fascitis injury in his right foot and missed the next three games.

The Tribe opened its stretch run with that breather, a 94-49 win over Alabama State at home. All nine FSU players scored and six went for double figures.

A date at eighth ranked Clemson was next. Thompson turned out to be the hero again as his running 15-foot bank shot as time expired went in and gave Florida State a 67-65 win to improve to 15-9 and 5-9.

What seemed like it could be the least difficult of the Tribe's remaining ACC games turned into a disaster almost immediately. Florida State never led after the opening minute in getting blown out, 67-44, at NC State, the eighth place team in the league. FSU posted eight season lows in the process.

The Seminoles closed out the regular season at home against No. 5 Wake Forest. The game was almost identical to the two teams first meeting back in January: Florida State had a 13-point first half lead; Wake Forest cut the lead with a late first half run; and the game was close throughout the second half. The difference this time was that FSU was able to make the big plays down the stretch and came away with a 59-55 win. Thompson again was a difference maker, scoring a season-high 21 points. Jackson played admirably against Demon Deacon center Tim Duncan, adding 16 points and 12 rebounds. Luchman also played a factor, pulling down 11 boards.

Finishing the regular season with a 16-10 record and a 6-10 mark in the ACC gave the Seminoles a seventh place finish and a return date with Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, NC. This time Duncan would not be denied as he scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a 66-65 win. Collins closed out his ACC Tournament career with a 22-point, eight-rebound performance.

Despite not being selected for the NCAA Tournament, Florida State still advanced to the postseason with a bid to the National Invitational Tournament and a first round date at Syracuse.

The Seminoles proved that they still had plenty of basketball left in them as they rolled to a 82-67 win in the Carrier Dome. FSU dominated from the start, scoring the game's first seven points and never trailing. Jackson was the star with 20 points and 11 rebounds while Greer added a fine all-around game with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists. Collins and Luchman chipped in with 14 and 13 points, respectively.

The second round of the NIT moved to Tallahassee and presented Florida State with just as difficult a challenge - Michigan State. A raucous Leon County Civic Center crowd of 6,362, who took advantage of the school's general admission seating policy, provided a deafening backdrop for the Tribe's 68-63 victory. Jackson continued his torrid late season play with a 16-point, 11-rebound effort, while Greer and Luchman each added 11. The win was marred however, by the season-ending injury to Geoff Brower, who torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

One more win meant a trip to New York for the NIT Final Four and it was clear that NIT officials did not have the Seminoles on the guest list for their Garden party. Florida State was sent to West Virginia two days after their win over Michigan State to take on the Mountaineers. Showing the poise of a battle-tested team, FSU overcame 10-point second half deficits on three occasions and rallied for a 76-71 road victory. Collins played one of the finest games of his career with 24 points while Jackson added 19 points and nine rebounds and Louis added 14 points and seven boards. Greer gave the Seminoles the lead for good at 65-64 with a three-pointer with 4:06 to play and the Tribe was Big Apple bound.

The NIT Final Four had the feel of a NCAA Final Four as the three teams left alongside Florida State - Arkansas, Connecticut and Michigan - had each advanced to at least the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in the last four years.

The Seminoles semifinal opponent, Connecticut, was its third Big East opponent in the NIT and turned out to be its third victim thanks to the big plays of Collins and Thompson. FSU trailed by five points (59-54) with a minute to go in regulation but two free throws by Jackson cut the margin to three and set up another heroic effort by Thompson. His three-pointer from the top of the key with 3.9 seconds remaining knotted the game at 59 and forced overtime. Collins, who set a career-high with eight three-pointers and matched one with 29 points, put the Seminoles on top for good with a three-pointer 54 seconds into the extra session. The Tribe put the game away and the free throw line and advanced to the championship game with a heart-stopping 71-65 win.

In the title game, Florida State would face one of the most talented teams in the nation in Michigan. The Wolverines bigger front line helped Michigan open an 18-point second half lead early in the second half. But Florida State would not go down quietly. A 23-8 run over the next seven minutes got the Tribe back into the game and whittled the Wolverine lead down to 57-54 at the 10-minute mark. Florida State had a chance to tie the game at the 4:30 mark but Collins missed a pair of free throws and Michigan was able to pull away for a 82-73 win.

Despite the championship game defeat, the Seminoles had shown remarkable heart and courage during its postseason run, which was not lost among the Seminole faithful. A crowd of close to 500 gathered at the Tallahassee Airport to welcome the team home and it was the obvious that Thompson's locker statement about the return of Florida State basketball rang true. FSU's 20-12 record was its first 20-win campaign in four years but its fifth in nine years and the 12th in school history. The postseason appearance was also the Tribe's first in four years but its seventh in 11 years.

Florida State also played one of the nation's more difficult schedules 14 opponents played in the NCAA Tournament and a total of 21 appeared in the postseason. The Seminoles posted a 14-1 record against non-conference opposition.

Two Florida State players earned All-ACC honors. Collins was a second team pick and concluded his career as a three-time all-league performer while Thompson, undoubtedly one of the league's top newcomers, was an honorable mention choice.

Jackson and Greer both proved capable of carrying the team in the postseason and seemed ready to elevate their games on a full time basis in 1997-98 while Louis also flashed glimpses of his potential when he was healthy.

A pair of freshman also showed positive signs during spots of their rookie campaigns. Hale had a fine stretch of games while in the starting five that culminated in his 17-point outing in the win over Maryland. Deas started the first three games then proved to be a capable backup to Thompson at the point.

The senior class, made up of Collins and Luchman, exited in fine fashion. Collins became the program's third all-time leading scorer during the year and finished in the program's all-time top five in five other categories. Luchman recorded three double-doubles during the season and became the 23rd player in school history to grab 500 rebounds in a career.

The up-and-down season ended on a positive note and the city of Tallahassee was talking basketball again. Florida State's postseason run gave notice to the nation that the best is yet to come for FSU and basketball truly is back.

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