ATLANTA — The dream nearly became reality, and the Florida State Seminoles were becoming believers.
Long the laughingstock of the ACC, Florida State spent the past several months operating in a fantasyland, convincing itself that they would be cutting down nets at the Georgia Dome this March.
But Sunday afternoon, the Seminoles couldn’t recapture the magic they had created all season, losing 79-69 to Duke in the ACC championship game. But for a Florida State team that had had never even played in an ACC title game before, the loss was just a bump along a much longer journey.
“We’re still a team that’s learning and in growth,” Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We’re not quite as efficient on some areas like I think we will be after another year of experience.”
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Fielding a team that started two freshmen in the conference’s final contest, the Seminoles have at least one more week of basketball left to play. Florida State received an at-large berth Sunday night to the NCAA tournament, drawing a No. 5 seed and a first-round game Friday against Wisconsin. The trip marks just the 10th trip to the NCAA tournament for Florida State.
Duke drew the No. 2 seed in the East Region, the same region that Florida State was placed in, and will open Thursday against Binghamton.
The Blue Devils, who haven’t won a conference championship since the 2005-06 season, ended a two-year title drought.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski mostly credited his veteran players — five of whom are juniors — with making sure the entire team believed in the concept of recapturing the Blue Devils’ winning spirit.
“Their class is a really good class,” he said of the third-year players. “Great families, good players, really good character, and they’re believers; they believe, and they helped get our culture back.
“This class is special to me because they helped build a championship. This is a class that I’ll always remember in my coaching career.”
For one of those juniors, guard Gerald Henderson, this day could not have come any sooner. As a freshman, he had to listen to the stories about the previous year from his older teammates, stories about winning a conference championship.
“As I’ve said before, this is kind of a long time coming,” Henderson said. “We’ve put a lot of work into building our team into what it is today, and winning this championship is an accomplishment for us because we’ve waited a long time for it, and it feels really good.”
He was a big part of Duke’s success Sunday, scoring 27 and dishing out four assists. Of his points, 12 were the result of 3-pointers. One of those long-range shots came amid a flurry of first-half 3-point shooting activity, when the Blue Devils sank five in a row to propel them on a 16-0 run.
“They were shooting better from the 3 than they were from the two,” said Hamilton, the ACC’s Coach of the Year. “There were several times I thought we did a good job of contesting them. But great players make great plays.”
Henderson wasn’t the only one making similar plays for Duke. Also scoring during that bevy of 3-point activity, guard Jon Scheyer and forward Kyle Singler contributed to the madness, burying their own long shots, as well. In all, the trio combined for 12 successful shots from beyond the arc.
While Duke’s shooters hurt Florida State, the Seminoles still received a strong performance from their star player in the process.
Toney Douglas, the ACC’s second-leading scorer, finished with 28 points in the loss. Krzyzewski, who has seen many different college basketball players in his 33-year coaching career, said Douglas may be among the best he’s seen.
“He’s my favorite non-Duke player in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “I love that guy. I talk about him a lot to our guys, and they’re probably mad at me for talking about him as much as I do. He’s as good as there is in college. He’s a kid I’d love to coach; no question about it.”