The Seminoles, trailing by 17, get within one late but lose 78-71 at UNC.
By KEVIN BRAFFORD
Published February 22, 2004
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Physically, Leonard Hamilton believes Florida State is on level ground with the rest of the ACC. Mentally, the Seminoles remain a basket case whenever they stray from home, their coach says.
His theory was supported Saturday when, unlike last month within the friendly confines of the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center, the Seminoles couldn't overcome a huge first-half deficit against North Carolina. The final was 78-71 in favor of the Tar Heels, who needed to win just as badly to improve their chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
"They had an edge that we didn't match," Hamilton said of North Carolina (16-7, 6-6). "They were so much more mentally prepared for this game than we were."
What the 'Noles (18-9, 6-7) see is a season at a crossroads. The consensus is that seven regular-season conference wins will secure an at-large berth in the field of 65, regardless of where a team finishes in the standings, but its visit Wednesday to suddenly resurgent Wake Forest is followed by the home finale against Duke and a trip to Georgia Tech.
"Two of those teams we've beaten and Duke comes to our place," said guard Tim Pickett, who paced the 'Noles with 25 points. "Those games won't be easy for us, but they won't be easy for them, either."
Andrew Wilson scored career-high 24, and no other FSU player scored more than seven.
The 'Noles, whose conference losing streak stands at 22, trailed by 11 before the second TV timeout and trailed by 17 in the half.
"We didn't match their intensity," Pickett said. "Teams are giving us their best shots right at the start and for whatever reason we're not doing the same. We keep digging ourselves a big hole."
Last month in Tallahassee, the 'Noles rallied from 24 down to beat the Tar Heels in overtime 91-80. This time, they worked back to within 65-64 on Wilson's seventh and final 3-pointer with 4:03 left.
"We were too careless and too casual," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "The thing that bothered me when they made the great comeback was that they outhustled us for loose balls. That made me about the most frustrated I've been all year."
Williams said he nearly fainted during the game. He has had occasional spells of dizziness since he was a child, usually when he is yelling or jumping up quickly.
"It's no big deal," he said.
Rashad McCants, the ACC's top scorer at 19.9, had a loose ball knocked to him and he put the lead back to four with a 3-pointer. The 'Noles had turnovers on three of their next five possessions.
North Carolina was just 11 of 25 from the free-throw line in the first 37 minutes, but McCants and Raymond Felton combined to make 10 of 12 in the final three. McCants scored 21.
"We were just a couple of plays away from winning," Pickett said. "Give them credit for doing what they had to do down the stretch."
That the 'Noles got as close as they did, Hamilton said, was a product of smoke, mirrors and timely shooting by Wilson, an often-injured sophomore who had never scored in double figures.
"We found a way to get close, but in reality they outplayed us by a lot," Hamilton said. "Had we won this game, I'm not sure it would have been deserving."
The 'Noles were outrebounded 48-28, and 17-4 offensively. Not even 15-of-37 3-point shooting, 11 steals and six blocks could overcome that number.
Wilson, who credited his red-letter day to "just having open shots," said FSU's lack of mental toughness was a mystery.
"That seems to be a continuing trend on the road for us," he said. "We're going to have to find out what's going on."