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20 years of FSU taking shots at the ACC giants

Managing Editor

Last night’s FSU-Duke game was another battle into the final minute. Despite erasing a big Blue Devil lead and coming within three points late in the second half, Florida State couldn’t quite repeat its performance at Cameron from last month and fell by eight at home.
The rivalry between these two isn’t up there with UNC-Duke — for one thing, this one is a lot more important to the Seminoles than to Duke. But it’s underrated as a consistent battle of wills with strong animosity and now 20 years of ACC tradition.
In early 1992, Duke was being heralded as the new dynasty in college basketball after an impressive championship victory over Kansas the previous year and a series of memorable Final Four appearances.
The Blue Devils, led by Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill were in everyone’s crosshairs.
Their archrival, North Carolina, had fallen to Roy Williams’ Jawhawks in the 1991 Final Four. The 1991-92 Tar Heels had plenty of talent, but Dean Smith’s team was often thought of more in relation to the program’s glorious past, legendary coach and high-flying alumni than any real chances that a squad featuring Eric Montross and George Lynch would cut down the nets anytime soon.
And a Sunshine State school nearing the peak of its much-vaunted football prime was joining the Atlantic Coast Conference with hopes that the Seminoles might bring some gridiron gravitas to the league known mostly for its hardwood heroics.
Florida State University was still a few wide rights short of a championship, but its presence would immediately bring a football spotlight to the league.
I was in my first year as a graduate student at FSU. I’d grown up a Tar Heel fan living less than an hour from Chapel Hill and had remained a staunch backer of UNC while in exile from ACC territory during four years attending a small college near Chicago.
The culture shock of the intensity surrounding the FSU football program and the 24/7 hard-partying atmosphere in Tallahassee were both impressive and alarming, coming from a Division III college with a dry campus. But I was excited about having student tickets to ACC basketball games.
Within a few short years, that anticipated pigskin prominence did come to pass, with a championship and a Heisman trophy-winning quarterback. Along the way, however, Charlie Ward would also play a part on a basketball team that would make some noise in both the ACC and NCAA, while sending a number of stars to the NBA.
By the time the conference basketball schedule started in December ’91, the Seminoles had amassed a 3-1 schedule under Coach Pat Kennedy.  No one was expecting much as they travelled to Chapel Hill to play No. 5 North Carolina. But FSU came away with a 12-point upset and Sam Cassell accurately christened the staid Dean Dome elites as the “wine and cheese crowd.”
With that marquee win, the atmosphere surrounding Seminole basketball was suddenly electrified. Cassell and Ward were joined by a host of other talents including Doug Edwards and an unheralded freshman guard from Pennsylvania, Bob Sura.
When it came time to host Duke, fans who knew little about basketball but loved their Seminoles were ready to rumble. My roommate and some of his buddies made up a sign to wave at the game featuring the likeness of ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale predicting a FSU victory.
It was not to be. But that spirit says something about how FSU still responds to the Blue Devils each and every time they come to town.
FSU went on to an 11-5 premier season and second place finish in the ACC in 1992. Carolina took a little slice of revenge with an ACC tourney semi-finals upset of the ’Noles before a more animated crowd in Charlotte. More important for FSU fans, the Seminoles couldn’t touch Duke, which was destined to claim its second-straight championship.
Then came the 1992-93 basketball season. FSU put together an unimpressive 8-4 preconference record and many assumed their excellence during the previous season had been a fluke. This would be a team that showed bursts of brilliance, but mostly maddening inconsistency.  They travelled to Charlottesville and lost to the Cavaliers in their conference opener.
Other than being an excellent recruiter and a protégé of the late Jim Valvano, there’s not much positive I can say about Coach Kennedy.  I worked part-time at the private student residence facility Cash Hall where most of the FSU team lived. They made little secret of how much they despised their coach. There were games where you could tell they’d almost scrapped Kennedy’s game plan and were deliberately playing their own street ball style. Those were the games they won.
One of those was their next outing, when Florida State travelled to Winston-Salem and scored an overtime win against a Deacon squad led by Rodney Rogers and Randolph Childress.  The Seminoles then proceeded to clean-up the bottom half of the conference in their next three outings.
On Jan. 24, 1993, the Seminoles hosted the invincible Blue Devils. Fans in Tallahassee went nuts, though I’m not sure they really believed in their team. It took an overtime, but Florida State pulled off the impossible and captured a 1-point victory over might Duke.
The Tar Heels took Florida State down a notch in the next game. A few weeks later in Durham, Duke dismantled the Seminoles. UNC completed the sweep just before the end of the season. Their confidence shaken, Florida State choked in the first round of the ACC tournament, falling to Clemson.
Word in Cash Hall was that the team, sick of playing under Kennedy, would choke again in the first round of the NCAAs. That rumor proved false. Instead, they played with heart – their own style, not Kennedy’s. Wins over Evansville, Tulane and Western Kentucky carried them to the Elite Eight, where they finally fell to Kentucky.
The team of destiny that season was my Tar Heels, of course.
Today I remain a lifetime Tar Heel fan, as well as a UNC student, having enrolled in an all-online graduate program last fall. Things didn’t work out for me with FSU and I quit the program at the end of 1993 to pursue a career in newspapers.
But looking back as I watched this year’s Florida State team again vie with the Blue Devils and Tar Heels for greatness, I realize how privileged I was to be there for a magical period in ACC basketball.
Frank Taylor is managing editor of the Lincoln Times-News.

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