‘That’s our guy’: FSU feeds off Leonard Hamilton’s resilience in win over UNCG

Leonard Hamilton needed only a walking boot for his ruptured left Achilles Saturday.
Leonard Hamilton needed only a walking boot for his ruptured left Achilles Saturday.(WCTV)
Published: Mar. 21, 2021 at 7:38 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Anybody who has followed Florida State basketball closely over the years knows that Leonard Hamilton carries himself with unique aplomb. Any changes to his demeanor are so subtle that they are difficult to even notice. The 72-year-old coach mostly prefers to keep any personal struggles to himself in order to limit distractions for his team.

That was evident throughout the week leading up to Florida State’s first-round NCAA Tournament matchup against UNC Greensboro on Saturday. While getting off the team bus last Sunday, Hamilton misjudged how far down the step was, took a misstep onto the curb and fell.

He told media members the next day that he strained his wrist and ankle, but he later said in an interview on Packer and Durham Thursday that he is dealing with a ruptured Achilles.

When Hamilton arrived at a Florida State practice in the middle of last week wearing a boot on his left foot, it was the first time any of his players learned of the news.

“Obviously, that’s our head coach, and we care about his health and stuff like that, but he’s a tough guy,” RaiQuan Gray said. “He doesn’t really tell us how he’s feeling or complain about it, so we just want to keep going. That’s how we kind of take on the mentality to keep going and not let things bother us.”

It took exactly that kind of mentality that Hamilton exuded throughout the week for Florida State to avoid a first-round upset against UNC Greensboro. The Spartans hung around all afternoon and kept things interesting right up until the end, but the Seminoles eventually escaped with a 64-54 win in Indianapolis.

Florida State had an excellent start to the first half behind some stingy defense and seemed to be on the brink of delivering an early knockout punch. The Spartans battled back though, ending the half on a 19-6 run to trail by only three points at the end of the half.

When Keyshaun Langley drilled a 3 on UNCG’s first possession of the second half to tie the game at 29, the momentum seemed to shift away from Florida State.

There never seemed to be one moment of panic from the Seminoles though. Florida State responded with a 12-0 run over the next four minutes with seven quick points coming from Balsa Koprivica.

The sophomore seven-footer finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, just missing out on his third straight double-double.

“Balsa told me the other day that what he’s trying to do is play to exhaustion and then come out of the game,” Hamilton said. “He seems to be more productive when he’s really going to exhaustion and then actually coming out of the game. He’s blocking shots, rebounding. He’s running the floor, giving us an inside presence that I think is really, really showing his capabilities.

Koprivica has played his best basketball of the season over his last three games. He had a rough stretch in the first half where he was called for a travel and two offensive fouls on three straight possessions, but he settled down in the second half and turned in a solid NCAA Tournament debut.

As a scrappy underdog, UNCG wasn’t done yet though. The Spartans responded with a 21-10 run of their own to cut the Florida State lead back down to one with just under five minutes left in regulation.

Again, Florida State never wavered.

Gray scored on the next two possessions for FSU to give him a game-high 17 points. The Seminoles subsequently finished the game on a 13-4 run to outlast UNCG. They made six of their final eight field goals while forcing the Spartans to miss seven of their last eight shots.

“I think we just learned from our mistakes in the past,” Gray said. “Obviously, these last few games the last couple weeks of the regular season, you can go to Georgia Tech game, we were up in that game, and North Carolina game, and things like that. I think we just learned from our mistake.

“We limited our turnovers. We still turned the ball over a little too much today. But I think at the end of the day, we learned from our past games. Taking care of the ball when we needed to, getting quality shots, and like I said before, getting stops on defense.”

Florida State did not play its best game. The same issues it has had all year manifested themselves once again Saturday. It committed 15 turnovers, marking its sixth straight game with at least 15 turnovers. The Seminoles also did not make a single 3 in the game (0-for-9), continuing a season-long trend of struggling to shoot the ball outside of the Tucker Center (31.5% in 10 games away from home).

FSU became the first team in the NCAA Tournament since Kentucky in 2018 to not make a single 3-point shot.

When asked about the shooting struggles after the game, Hamilton and Gray both mentioned they simply took what the defense gave them. Florida State attempted only one 3 in the entire second half and clearly emphasized using its size advantage to score inside.

That formula won’t work for the entire tournament. It may not even be good enough to beat fifth-seeded Colorado on Monday.

But in Saturday’s case, Florida State could depend on outscoring UNCG 44-16 in the paint, its smothering defense and its culture of toughness to survive and advance.

“I thought the guys were locked in almost to a fault,” Hamilton said. “I thought we were really anxious, wanted to get that bad taste out of our mouth from losing the (ACC Tournament Championship) game last week. Our guys have got a culture. They challenge each other, call each other out. And there was no doubt that they were very, very hyped up, so to speak. I think sometimes when you’re hyped up like that, you can want something too bad.

“But on the defensive end, I thought we -- you know, we were energetic. We contained the dribble. We stuck with the game plan. We knew that, if you didn’t contest shots, they were going to knock shots down.”

Three of the five Florida State starters posted a defensive rating below 100. Gray (90.9), Koprivica (80.3) and Anthony Polite (95.9) were excellent defensively, as they’ve frequently been all season. That group doesn’t include Scottie Barnes (98.3), who wasn’t even quite as disruptive as he normally is off the bench.

Florida State did a nice job of containing Southern Conference Player of the Year Isaiah Miller throughout the day, holding him to 17 points on just 7-of-18 shooting. Miller got loose for only a couple of easy baskets, but Florida State mostly forced him to make contested mid-range jump shots, rather than let him get all the way to the basket or catch and shoot from beyond the arc.

“I think that not many people view us as a defensive team, but if you know Florida State basketball and Coach Ham, we’re junkyard dogs,” Gray said. “We get after it on defense. I think we had a few slip-ups these last few games. We know what we’re capable of, and I think we showed that a little bit tonight. We still can clean some things up, but I think our defense is going to take us to where we need to be.”

The way Florida State responded to a couple of mid-game runs from UNCG was noticeably similar to how Hamilton has nursed a painful injury all week.

Hamilton’s injury was largely unknown nationally before Saturday’s TV broadcast showed him roaming the sideline in a walking boot.

A ruptured Achilles usually requires more than a walking boot. Many people with that kind of injury at the very least will use crutches or maybe a steerable scooter to keep weight off of their leg as much as possible. To Hamilton though, that would have just created a distraction for his team.

“Well, they say pain is temporary. It’s not something that’s going to last all the time,” Hamilton said. And we have a job to do, and we’re going to work through whatever challenges that we have. I mean, I’ve never had -- I have been injured very few times in my life. We’re in the NCAA Tournament. My guys depend on me, so I want to -- if I’m going to ask them to work hard and challenge themselves, I have to do the same thing to some degree.

“This is part of -- and to be very honest with you, I didn’t even know I had the boot on once the game started. So it’s something I’ve just got to -- it’s a nuisance. It’s a challenge, but there are more important things than worrying about me having a little pain.”

Just how Hamilton didn’t notice the walking boot during the game, his team didn’t seem to notice when UNCG clawed its way back two different times.

The Seminoles just stayed the course and relied on their defense to survive, even when they didn’t play their smoothest game offensively. That’s a testament to the type of culture Hamilton has created at Florida State.

The way Florida State won on Saturday might not be sufficient for the rest of the tournament as the level of competition increases, but the only thing that matters in the NCAA Tournament is finding a way to survive and advance.

They say teams often take on the personality of their head coach, and Saturday was the perfect example of that sentiment.

“(Hamilton) instills toughness in us,” Gray said. “He doesn’t like to complain about anything or let little things bother him. He’s walking around like he’s healthy 100 percent even though how he’s feeling. He’s going to show up every day and be the same coach and be a leader for us. That’s how we feel. Showing up in a boot is extra motivation to go out there and play with something. That’s our guy. He’s our head coach, and we all love him.

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