Bernard James’ veteran presence helps Florida State survive
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Florida State was staring at the realistic possibility of a premature demise.
The third-seeded Seminoles trailed for the first 33 minutes of their opening NCAA tournament game. Their leading scorer sat out nearly the entire first half and didn’t score. A partisan crowd at Bridgestone Arena cheered wildly for St. Bonaventure in anticipation of an upset.
So it should have come as no surprise that the Seminoles turned to the man who has encountered enough actual life-and-death situations to avoid crumbling over the prospect of something as comparably trivial as an early postseason exit.
Bernard James, a 27-year-old former Air Force staff sergeant, continued his current role as the Seminoles’ leader by scoring a career-high 19 points to go along with nine rebounds and three blocks as the third-seeded Seminoles erased a 10-point deficit in a 66-63 East Regional victory.
“Under pressure, I feel I do better, no matter what the situation is,” said James, a 6-foot-10 senior. “When there’s pressure on me to perform, I do better. I think that’s why I had a good tournament last year. Same thing this year.
“There’s really no room for error here. You lose one game, you’re gone. Just knowing that right there, it’s a huge inspiration for me to come out and play some of the best basketball I have all season.”
Florida State (25-9) advanced to a Sunday matchup with No. 6 seed Cincinnati (25-10), a 65-59 winner over Texas earlier in the day. The Seminoles never would have made it that far without James, who offers one of this postseason’s most compelling stories of triumph over adversity.
James, a former high school dropout, earned his GED at the age of 17 and enlisted in the Air Force. James did his basic training amid 100-degree temperatures in San Antonio. The stepson of a career military man, James would go on to serve three deployments in the Middle East.
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“The military was instrumental in me being the man I am today, having the values I have and carrying myself the way I do,” James said. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now without the military.”
James was talented enough to draw the attention of some college coaches late in his military service, but FSU’s Leonard Hamilton impressed him the most. After spending two years at nearby Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, James earned his associates degree and signed with the Seminoles.
“[Hamilton] was the most sincere about helping me get an education,” James said. “That’s my main goal since I’ve been here. It still is my main goal, getting a degree. Being a high school dropout, education is important to me now. It’s a chance for me to kind of right a wrong I made earlier in my life.”
First, he’d like to lead FSU on another deep postseason run.
James showed a penchant for delivering in the tournament last season, when he had 14 points and 10 rebounds in a 71-57 upset of Notre Dame, despite feeling so sick that he needed three IVs the day of the game.
This performance was even better.
James led his team in points and rebounds, and also took over the primary defensive responsibilities against potential first-round draft pick Andrew Nicholson in the second half. After scoring 12 points and shooting 5-of-5 in the first half, Nicholson tallied eight points and shot 3-of-12 the rest of the game.
“When we get rattled, we kind of turn to him for advice,” Florida State forward Okaro White said of James.
The Seminoles were a trendy pick to reach the Final Four after beating Duke and North Carolina on consecutive days to earn their first ACC tournament crown, but there was a sense even before the opening tip that St. Bonaventure (20-12) could deliver something special.
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Florida State’s enrollment is 20 times the size of St. Bonaventure, which has only about 2,000 students. Florida State’s campus also is about 220 miles closer to Nashville. Yet St. Bonaventure still had enough fan support to create a road-game environment for the higher-seeded Seminoles.
Sure enough, St. Bonaventure capitalized on the crowd’s energy to score the game’s first seven points and remain ahead for the majority of the game.
“We weren’t intimidated,” St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. “We played. I’m really proud of how we played.”
While Nicholson built on his late-season momentum to help the Bonnies take command, ACC tournament MVP Michael Snaer picked up two fouls in the game’s first 2½ minutes and sat out the rest of the half.
Snaer never recovered, as he missed all seven of his shots in a scoreless performance. That Florida State won without much help from Snaer shows why the Seminoles are capable of advancing far in this tournament.
“It says we have many different dimensions to our team that a lot of people may not understand and may not see,” Snaer said. “A lot of people may think I’ve got to go off first in order for us to win. That’s definitely not true. We proved that today.”
James shot 8-of-11 from the floor to spark Florida State’s comeback, but he arguably made an even bigger impact on the other end of the floor. No team has shot better than 50 percent against Florida State all season, yet St. Bonaventure was 16-of-32 from the floor three minutes into the second half. But the Bonnies missed their next eight shots and went 7-of-25 over the last 16½ minutes.
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James sparked an 18-4 run that helped Florid State grab an eight-point lead with 2:46 remaining, but the Bonnies wouldn’t go away. St. Bonaventure cut the lead to 66-63 and had the ball with a chance to force overtime, but James’ shot-blocking skills and the Bonnies’ puzzling last-minute decisions helped the Seminoles survive.
With his team trailing by three points in the closing seconds, St. Bonaventure forward Da’Quan Cook attempted two shots from two-point range. Cook said he was trying to make a quick basket or draw a foul to create an opportunity for a 3-point play. After the first shot misfired, James blocked the second attempt to seal the victory.
“It was a quick reaction as a basketball player,” Cook said. “[I wanted] to draw a foul or something. Just be aggressive.”
Perhaps this was the type of game Florida State needed. After having fans pat them on the back all week in the wake of their ACC title, the Seminoles may benefit from learning a lesson about the precarious nature of life in the postseason.
After the game, James warned that the Seminoles couldn’t afford a repeat performance Sunday, but he also understood how they may have benefited from the experience.
“I don’t think we’ll come out as flat as we did [Friday],” James said, “but it’s comforting to know even when we’re not clicking or playing our absolute best, we still have a chance to win the game.”