CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Florida State's Jason Rich found his shot midway through the second half Thursday afternoon against Wake Forest by taking a shot & to his noggin on the defensive end.
"I know this sounds crazy," he said, "but somebody kind of landed on the back of my head and made my neck go forward and it kind of woke me up a little bit. Not that I was asleep out there, but it seemed at that point my energy picked back up and I was ready to shoot when the ball came to me."
Was he ever.
Rich scored 15 of his game-high 22 in a 4:26 span to carry the Seminoles to a 70-60 win in the opening round of the ACC tournament at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena.
The No. 9-seeded Seminoles (19-13), who have battled season-ending injuries, an illness and a suspension to key players to win five of their past six, will play top-seeded and top-ranked North Carolina (29-2) at noon today in the quarterfinals. FSU lost both regular-season meetings to the Tar Heels, 84-73 in overtime in Tallahassee on Feb. 3 (UNC point guard Ty Lawson sprained his left ankle and played just four minutes) and 90-77 in Chapel Hill on March 4.
Could an upset — and FSU has never won two games in the ACC tournament — be enough to end a nine-year drought without an appearance in the NCAA Tournament?
"We can't worry about any of those scenarios," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "We realize we have a tremendous opportunity against what is considered the No. 1 basketball team in America."
That chance is available thanks to Rich and a solid team effort from the rest of the Seminoles against the No. 8-seeded Demon Deacons (17-13), who looked like an NCAA Tournament team after whipping Duke 86-73 on Feb. 17 before losing four straight.
FSU, which was up by as many as 13 in the first half and then five at the break, was clinging to a 42-40 lead when Rich, shortly after that head-clearing blow, hit a 3-pointer in the left corner with 9:59 left.
"Once he made that one, I knew he was into his rhythm," said FSU senior guard Ralph Mims, who had 16 points, six in the waning moments to seal the win. "I could look at him and tell by his body language."
Rich followed with a short baseline jumper, another 3-pointer, an old-fashioned three-point play after a pullup in the lane, a tough turnaround and then a fallaway baseline shot to give the Seminoles a 59-49 lead with 5:33 remaining.
"I've been in this business long enough to know that when you've got a guy who's feeling it like that, you've got to keep going to him," said Hamilton, who coached in his 600th game. "We needed every one of those buckets."
At one point during that game-changing stretch, it seemed that Rich, red-hot in ACC play of late, shouted out that the Demon Deacons couldn't guard him. He later playfully denied it, but several Deacons had their opportunity to contain Rich, a point of emphasis to their game plan.
"He just caught fire and there was almost nothing we could do," Wake Forest sophomore guard L.D. Williams said. "He picked them up on his shoulders and said, 'We're not losing.' "
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.