TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — TC TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Not yet, Florida State. Not quite yet.
Coach Pat Kennedy's Seminoles, newcomers to the Atlantic Coast Conference's basketball wars, proved to the nation last night that they are ready for prime time. They just aren't yet ready for Duke. Who is?
The Blue Devils, 16-0 and ranked No. 1, showed why by scoring the final 14 points and shaking off the Seminoles, 75-62, before a pulsating record crowd of 13,610 in the Leon County Civic Center and a national ESPN television audience.
"We played them well for 37 minutes," FSU forward Doug Edwards said, "but the last three minutes, we let it get away."
Freshman Bob Sura made a twisting, double-pumping bank shot underneath to stake Florida State to a 62-61 lead with 3:43 remaining and precipitated an ear-splitting roar that threatened to bring the roof down. But the Seminoles would not score again in falling to 13-5 and 5-3 in the ACC.
"We were counting on our defense to pull it out at the end," said Duke All-American center Christian Laettner, who had 20 points and nine rebounds to supplement 20 points and 10 boards by Grant Hill. "And that's what happened."
It was Hill, son of Orioles vice president Calvin Hill, who came up big in those final three minutes.
After Laettner had made one of two free throws for a 62-62 tie with 3:19 remaining, Hill drove the middle for the tiebreaking basket. Another Laettner free throw pushed the lead to 65-62, but FSU remained only a three-point goal from a tie inside the 90-second mark.
Hill then sliced through to steal a backcourt pass that Sura aimed at Sam Cassell and drove unmolested for a layup that sucked the last gasp of hope from the Seminoles.
"After I hit the ball and caught up to it, I thought I was going to lose it right back," Hill said, laughing. "I felt like Akeem Olajuwon handling the ball. I was like patting it instead of dribbling it."
Free throws distorted the final count. Duke (8-0 in the ACC) sank 24 of 30 in all, Florida State only four of nine.
Hill's steal foiled Kennedy's stretch strategy of slowing play, consuming the clock and trying to work for an easy back-door layup.
Edwards said the Seminoles "lost momentum when we went to the four corners, though it had been working. We had them on their heels. You could see it in their eyes."
But Kennedy and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski interpreted the look differently. They saw the expressions of veteran players steeled to tough situations from the crucible of four straight NCAA Final Four trips, the most recent finally delivering their national championship.
"They have such great composure," Kennedy said. "When you see their eyes, Bobby Hurley's and Laettner's and Hill's . . . They were so composed."
"I just have a question for you," Krzyzewski opened his postgame remarks to reporters. "Is this as exciting as football is down here?"
He paused and grinned. "That was a hell of a game. If they [the Seminoles] play that way all the time, they're going to be a team that goes pretty far in the NCAA."
Kennedy's 23rd-ranked road warriors had awakened the nation to the potential by beating such ACC luminaries as North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest before hostile crowds. But even Duke turning clutch time into hammer time didn't detract from the FSU effort.
Edwards, whose nine points, seven rebounds and five assists did not accurately reflect his contributions, planted a seed by scoring seven points in the game's first 2 1/2 minutes. Even when Hurley triggered a 14-point answer with a couple of three-pointers and Duke jumped up by 10, the Seminoles would not buckle.
They pared a 30-20 deficit to 39-37 at the half. Then they kept pestering Duke throughout the second half until Edwards' thunderous dunk off a snazzy feed from point guard Charlie Ward gave them their first lead since the early moments and set the stage for the late-game disappointment.
"It's not often you get a chance like we had there at the end," Kennedy said. "We wish we could freeze those final three minutes and play them again. We did a great job of putting ourselves in position to win the game, but then we didn't close it out."
But he, like his players, appeared to look quickly to the favorable effects.
Ward, who also could be quarterbacking Florida State's football team next fall, has been settling back into a basketball mode since the Cotton Bowl. He played sparingly in FSU's earlier 86-70 loss at Duke -- the last defeat before the six-game victory string snapped last night -- and Krzyzewski pointed to the difference he makes.
With some frequency, you could spot an FSU player smothering a smile after a play. The message seemed to be that they were just happy to be in a game of some magnitude.
"We had nothing to lose," Ward said. "They had to defend their No. 1 ranking."
And they did.
But ACC fever has caught hold in Tallahassee. "Their fans were )) outstanding," Laettner said. "What they do for the team is like what our crowd does for us."