With the Florida State Seminoles clinging to a lead in the waning minutes Saturday afternoon, Clemson guard Demontez Stitt sped toward what looked like an easy layup.
But center Solomon Alabi slid across the lane, reached out with his right hand and deftly blocked the shot from behind, demonstrating once again that nothing is easy against FSU's defense.
Not this season.
"It's all about locking people down," said Alabi, a 7-1 redshirt freshman who leads the ACC with 62 blocks. "We worry more about our defense than anything."
That's easy to see.
The No. 24 Seminoles (22-7, 9-5), who play tonight at No. 7 Duke (24-5, 10-4), are all but assured of their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998 thanks to their markedly improved, tenacious defense.
"We've accepted the fact that, while our offense is coming, the one thing we can control is our defensive effort and our ability to execute our defensive game plan," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said.
• FSU is allowing an average of 64.2 points, tops in the league. Last season, it allowed 69, third in the ACC. It has improved 90 spots nationally. This year's figure also is the stingiest since the Seminoles allowed 63.5 during the 1950-51 season.
• FSU is holding teams to 38.8 percent shooting from the field, again tops in the ACC. That's compared with 43.3 percent, seventh in the ACC, a year ago. Out of the 330 Division I teams, FSU has made a quantum leap from 148th to 12th. It's also the best field-goal percentage defense since FSU held teams to 38.5 during the 1956-57 season.
That kind of defense begins on the perimeter with senior guard Toney Douglas. After leading the ACC in steals (2.6 a game) last year, the long-armed, quick-handed Douglas is third (2) but is gambling less often and focused more on being solid.
"He's the best on-the-ball defender I've ever coached." Hamilton said.
"Toney is just fantastic," echoed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "He's not just an All-ACC player but probably the defensive player of the year in the conference."
Were it not for top-ranked Connecticut star center Hasheem Thabeet, Krzyzewski said Douglas might be the nation's best defender.
Rewind for a moment to crunch time against Clemson. Douglas smoothly switched assignments on a screen and swiped the ball from sharpshooter Terrence Oglesby. Forward Chris Singleton grabbed the loose ball, drew a foul and hit a free throw to build a 10-point lead with 41 seconds left. FSU won 73-66.
"People look at me for my scoring, but I have more pride in my defense than my offense," Douglas said. "I love defense."
He has lots of company. Sophomore guard Derwin Kitchen, a 6-4 junior college transfer, and 6-5 freshmen guards Luke Loucks and Deividas Dulkys also can cover ground, both with their feet and wingspans. They've combined for 69 steals.
But in contrast to recent years, the Seminoles complement the havoc their guards can cause on the outside with a stable of physically imposing post players.
Alabi is flanked by Singleton, a 6-9 freshman who's second on the team in blocks and steals with 37 and 49, respectively; 6-9 senior Uche Echefu; bruising 6-8 junior forward Ryan Reid; 6-7 forward Jordan DeMercy; and developing 6-11 freshman forward/center Xavier Gibson.
"All those guys are very long and athletic," Miami coach Frank Haith said. "They're allowed to pressure you and be very aggressive on the perimeter because when you drive the ball in there, you've got to deal with those guys."
Those guys not only block a lot of shots — the Seminoles are second in the ACC with 5.9 a game — but they alter countless others and make it difficult to pass inside.
"Everybody's committed themselves to do their part," Douglas said. "Any time you have 13 guys committed to doing their part, that you aren't going to be the one (not to), well, there you go."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.