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March 11, 2012
ATLANTA - The confetti poured. Music blared. The nets were snipped and a trophy was awarded. The players rejoiced.
And for the first time in a while, all of that pomp wasn't for the usual suspects.
A conference long dominated by Duke and North Carolina, Florida State staked its claim among the league's elite, completing its tear through the ACC Tournament by topping No. 6 North Carolina 85-82 at Philips Arena on Sunday.
The Seminoles (24-9), which began the year with some smarting defeats and a 9-6 record, corralled their first-ever conference title by knocking off both power programs in a span of 24 hours. It was just the second time a team other than Duke or UNC won the conference tournament in the past 16 years. In the end, the Seminoles would finish 4-1 against the league's torchbearers this season and hoist the hardware by taking the toughest tournament road possible.
The celebration matched the rarity of the feat. The players and coaches hugged each other and family members. The FSU fans, which made up a small sliver of the Philips Arena crowd, stuck around to soak in the postgame celebration.
"Obviously I'm extremely proud of our players and the fact that we've been through a lot of ups and downs through the course of the year," said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton. "(Sunday's) game was a testament to our players because there were several times when we made run and Carolina made runs. But I thought they always maintained focus and poise. I'm very proud of them."
As it did against Duke the night prior, Florida State flashed that poise in a late-game situation to ice it. Leading 83-82 with six seconds left, North Carolina's Kendall Marshall missed a 3-pointer and the rebound was grabbed by FSU's Deividas Dulkys. Dulkys was quickly fouled, and despite a heavy pro-UNC crowd, nailed both free throws with 3.9 seconds left to give FSU the 85-82 lead. UNC's P.J. Hairston's last-ditch three point attempt was off the mark as the buzzer sounded. The Seminoles converged at midcourt in celebration.
"They have been fantastic here and they showed it this weekend and they showed it again today to us," UNC coach Roy Williams said. No team had shot better than 50 percent against the Tar Heels all season until Sunday. "We had a chance and they made plays and that is the reason they are the champions.
"I think that should be the line of the story, Florida State deserved to win because they played big-time basketball," he said.
Florida State took control early on with stellar offense, shooting 62.5 percent in the first half while building a 49-40 lead at halftime. The Seminoles' lead ballooned as large at 16 at one point, but the Tar Heels charged back late to make it close. UNC cut FSU's lead was slimmed to 68-65 with 9:07 left, but as they've done all week, the Seminoles responded with a 6-0 run to keep its lead in tact. It was cut to one possession one more time within the final minute, but FSU wouldn't crumble.
"We knew they were going to make a run, they're a very good team," said Dulkys, who finished with 16 points and was 4-of-9 from 3-point range. Dulkys lit up UNC for 32 points in the 90-57 win in Tallahassee in January. "They made a run. They make tough shots and they have a lot of talent. We stayed composed and we did it as a team."
Michael Snaer led the Seminoles with 18 points and was named the tournament MVP. Luke Loucks set the ACC Championship game assist record with 13 to go with 11 points.
In what has become a theme, whether it be buzzer beaters or frantic comebacks, FSU got its biggest performances in the toughest situations this season. And its biggest win to date was no different.
The reward for that effort on Sunday was great.
"To have the opportunity to play those teams on this stage and in this game was really important to us," Loucks said. "We're stepping in the right direction and making our mark. We're not just some random team from Florida."
No, his team from Florida is the 2012 ACC Champion.