NASHVILLE -- As a member of the ACC not named Duke or North Carolina, Florida State is accustomed to playing the underdog role, as it did in winning its first-ever ACC tournament last weekend. But it didn't take long into the third-seeded Seminoles' NCAA tournament opener against 14th seed St. Bonaventure on Friday for Bernard James to realize how drastically the roles had reversed.
Far more Bonnies fans made the trek from Olean, N.Y., than did FSU faithful from Tallahassee, and they raucously cheered as their school jumped to leads of 7-0, 22-12 and, at halftime, 34-28, in what looked to be a Cinderella story in the making.
"The energy in the arena was unexpected," said Florida State's 27-year-old forward, who previously served In Iraq. "And throughout the year we haven't done a great job against teams we were supposed to beat."
The 'Noles eventually upped their own energy level ("It took our coaches coming in at halftime and chewing us out," said James) and closed out St. Bonaventure, 69-66, but not before trailing for the game's first 33 minutes, getting no production out of its best offensive player and, in the final seconds, catching a break when Bonnies forward Da'Quan Cook attempted two close-range shots when his team needed a three.
James, a former six-year Air Force officer and Florida State's chief enforcer inside, blocked the last of those attempts to seal the game, the finishing touch of a much-needed performance in which he scored a career-high 19 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked three shots and, most importantly, shut down previously torrid St. Bonaventure star Andrew Nicholson in the second half.
During the Bonnies' surge to start the game, Nicholson -- a 6-foot-9 senior from Ontario and the Atlantic 10 player of the year -- looked unstoppable. He hit seven of his first nine shots, including a trio of 3-pointers, thoroughly flummoxing FSU's normally suffocating defense.
"His game was something we'd never seen before," 6-foot-8 Okaro White said of the ultra-versatile Nicholson, who has the makings of an NBA first-rounder. "They run a lot of nifty and fancy ways to get him the ball."
Coach Leonard Hamilton responded by switching up his team's defensive assignments, causing the 6-10 James to become primarily responsible for Nicholson. It worked. Following a 3-pointer to put Bonaventure up 41-32 with 17:27 left, Nicholson proceeded to miss his next 10 shots, many of them quite badly.
"I tried to no-catch him as much as possible," said James, "and of he did catch it, I tried to put a hip into him and make sure that he didn't have room to move. That kind of kind of threw him off a bit."
Most of the season the 'Noles have relied on their backcourt for offensive sparks, but on Friday, their top sharpshooter, Michael Snaer -- the guy who hit the game-winning shot at Duke earlier this season and earned ACC tournament MVP honors last week -- spent most of the first half on the bench with two fouls and missed all seven of his field goal attempts on the day for zero points.
So James, already playing such an important role defensively, began asserting himself on offense, too.
"BJ just kept screaming at me, 'Get me the ball, I'm going to finish,'" said FSU point guard Luke Loucks. "When a 6-foot-10 Air Force veteran is screaming at you, you listen."
When FSU finally tied the score for the first time, 52-52 with 6:56 left, it came on a putback dunk by James. It took the lead shortly thereafter on an Ian Miller three from the top of the key, eventually pushing the margin to eight. But the Bonnies didn't go away, with Nicholson finally awaking from his slump to drain a 3-pointer with 1:45 left that cut the score to 60-57. FSU's White responded with a three of his own, only to watch Bonaventure's Demitrius Conger answer with two of his own to make it 65-63.
The game's most important play came with 25 seconds left, when, after Locks missed the front end of a one-and-one, White leapt high in the air and tipped the ball back out to Loucks, who was fouled again. This time he made one of two to push the lead in three.
Then, in a strange ending to the Bonnies' upset bid, Cook twice attempted close-range jumpers rather than kick to a 3-point shooter, even though there were only a scant few seconds remaining. He and his teammates seemed confused from the time they inbounded the ball, and coach Mark Schmidt had no timeouts left.
"I wish I had five more timeouts," he said. "They're the fifth-best defensive team in the country and we were right there with them. There's no negatives about this game."
FSU took much the same tact. Neither Hamilton nor his players seemed particularly bothered by the close call, particularly after playing so many close games throughout the season.
As they walked down a hallway together to get to the postgame press conference, Louks put a hand on his coach's shoulder. "Sorry we gave you such a headache in the first half," he said. "We made you earn your bonuses."
With top seed Syracuse looking vulnerable without center Fab Melo, FSU has become an increasingly popular pick to emerge from the East region, but next up comes another test Sunday against sixth seed Cincinnati, which survived its own mini-scare Friday after blowing a 19-point lead against Texas.
"I don't think we'll come out as flat next game," said James.
Maybe they won't need their military man to rescue them, either.