Saturday, January 20, 2018

Clearwater's Luke Loucks and Okaro White power Florida State Seminoles' win in NCAA Tournament

NASHVILLE — Four minutes to go, and suddenly, the lights were not so bright anymore. Two hundred and 40 seconds to play, and suddenly, the crowd did not seem so loud.

Game on the line, and the old friends took this game back to Clearwater High.

Just like that, and the two of them were thunder and lightning again, and the plays were there to be made for Luke Loucks and Okaro White. As stubborn as St. Bonaventure had been for most of the day, they could chase down White and Loucks. It was their game now, which means it was FSU's game in the same way it used to be Clearwater High's game.

With 3:38 to go and FSU up by three, Loucks hit a 3-pointer.

With 2:46 to play and FSU up by six, White made a dunk (assist by Loucks).

With 1:01 to play and FSU up by three, White hit a 3-pointer (assist by Loucks).

With 37 seconds to play, Loucks hit two free throws.

With 25 seconds to play and FSU up by three, White reached in and batted a rebound to the top of the key. To Loucks, of course.

With 22 seconds to go and FSU up by three, Loucks hit a free throw to put FSU up by three.

With two seconds to go, White blocked St. Bonaventure's final shot attempt.

Together, Loucks and White scored FSU's last 11 points, plus had the key rebound, plus the final block. Forget the stage. They might as well have been back home playing again. FSU had a rough trip most of Friday afternoon, but White and Loucks made sure it ended well.

They have played more than 100 games together by now, so it doesn't surprise White to see Loucks hit a big shot or for Loucks to see White make a hustle play. For years, they have seen the best of each other. Call it an old school win. You know, for the old school.

They have known each other forever, it seems, since Loucks was a freshman and White was an eighth-grader. There have been so many picks, so many rolls, so many big plays. White tells the story of the game against Tarpon Springs, when he was shooting it every chance he could until Loucks came up to him and yelled at him to pass the ball for a change.

White laughs as he tells the story. There is a bond here. They have worn the same jersey so many nights. If you want to know the truth, White says that 20 percent of the reason he went to FSU was Loucks was there already.

Still, this was different. This was the NCAA Tournament, with a season on the line, with a fiery opponent jumping ahead by 10 points. This was scratching and grunting and surviving to the next round against Cincinnati.

"Yeah, it does kind of go back to Clearwater when both of us could take over games," said Loucks, a senior. "But this is a much bigger stage. This is the biggest stage there is."

And the biggest play? Loucks votes for the tapped-back rebound by White.

"That's what Okaro is all about," Loucks said. "He's about the hustle plays. He doesn't get a whole lot of credit. His stats don't really show how valuable he is to our team. To swat that rebound back was huge.

"I think that single play was the most important play of the game. When he uses his athleticism and goes in between three, four guys and somehow manages to get his hand on the ball and then have the talent to throw it back to us, it was just an unbelievable play."

White, a sophomore, said he had noticed that, on every free throw attempt, St. Bonaventure star Andrew Nicholson was getting into the lane early.

"I thought if I could go in fast with him, I had a chance to tap it back early," White said. "It came off perfectly."

For FSU, very little about the early portion of the game was easy. St. Bonaventure came out fast, and FSU hardly looked like the team that won the ACC Tournament. Loucks will tell you that he wasn't as sharp, either. At one point, he was pulled from the game by FSU coach Leonard Hamilton.

"I struggled, especially in the first half," Loucks said. "I had a lot of turnovers and I forced plays that didn't need to be forced."

Said Hamilton: "I didn't take him out for the turnover that hit the backboard. I took him out because he was beating himself up on defense, not playing with the same emotion. I thought defensively, he allowed that play to affect his energy."

That's the thing about good teams, however. They fight through the down moments. They withstand the other team's energy. And, in the end, when the game is on the line, they play better than they have played all game.

"We just didn't want to stop playing," Loucks said.

Now, they don't have to stop. Thanks to the twin Tornadoes, the FSU season marches on.

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