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Gonzaga facing confident, battle-tested Florida State in Sweet 16

Head coach Leonard Hamilton, shown during Sunday’s win over Xavier, has Florida State heading in the right direction. (MARK HUMPHREY / AP)
Head coach Leonard Hamilton, shown during Sunday’s win over Xavier, has Florida State heading in the right direction. (MARK HUMPHREY / AP)

Florida State’s comeback Sunday shocked Xavier, but not the Seminoles.

They’re battle-tested, and even though many of those outcomes didn’t go their way – they’re 11-10 in their past 21 games – they’re comfortable in tense, high-level games.

The ones that did go their way – rallying from 12 down to beat top-seeded Xavier 75-70, rallying from 18 down to knock off Clemson, a 3-0 record in overtime against three eventual NCAA Tournament qualifiers – has No. 9 Florida State packed with confidence entering Thursday’s Sweet 16 date with fourth-seeded Gonzaga at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

“Xavier brought the fight and we did, too,” said senior forward Phil Cofer, who leads a balanced offense at 12.9 points per game. “We’ve been in that position before, been down more actually. That’s one of the things with us; we’re going to fight until the last minute no matter what.”

Florida State (22-11) is a fiery crew that isn’t afraid to get on each other, player to player or coach to player, to bring out their best. Head coach Leonard Hamilton grabbed P.J. Savoy by the jersey and yanked him into the team huddle during a second-half timeout.

“We’ve stayed connected,” Hamilton said. “We have a great relationship with our players. We have our ups and downs and everything is not always perfect, but I’m so proud of these guys. They allow us to challenge them and to coach them.”

During another timeout, senior guard Braian Angola, a product of North Idaho College, and Savoy exchanged heated words.

“That’s what we do, get with each other and talk things out,” Angola said. “We needed something. I just try to lead the team. When I did that with P.J., it was to make everybody come together.”

The Seminoles went 9-9 in the rugged ACC. They have wins – and losses, in some cases – over North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, Syracuse, Louisville and Clemson. They hammered Florida by 17 in a nonconference game.

They opened ACC play with a 100-93 road loss to Duke.

“That was an amazing game because both teams played great,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We couldn’t stop each other and the will to score and win was evident every second by both teams.

“Their kids … Cofer had 22 points in a half, Angola, those were 35-foot shots a couple of them and boom, right in. They had magnificent performances, and we did.”

Nine FSU players average between 6.6 and 12.9 points.

The Seminoles are relentless defensively, thanks to a deep bench and an athletic, versatile roster. They forced several turnovers late against the Musketeers, including two by Big East Player of the Year Trevon Bluiett.

They utilize a full-court press with one of the goals to shrink the shot clock, much like GU’s first-round opponent UNC Greensboro. Krzyzewski called it a “containment press.”

“I tell you, the reason that we’re not moving on was turnovers on our part caused by a tremendous amount of pressure from Florida State,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said.

Hamilton has guided FSU to six NCAA Tournaments in his 16 seasons, but his mission isn’t complete.

“I want to do everything I can to help build that type of culture,” said Hamilton, referring to three Final Fours and one national championship from his tenure as a Kentucky assistant coach. “We’re still fighting for our rightful place in the basketball hierarchy, so this gives us an opportunity to take another step closer.”

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