CHICAGO — Florida State has spent a lot of time this season talking about three words. The Seminoles have repeated them in practices and during games. They have thought about them and tried to live by them.
Somebody wrote them on a whiteboard in the locker room on Friday night in the United Center, after 10th-seeded FSU's 57-50 victory against No. 7 Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. There they were again. Three words: "Change the culture."
The Seminoles' victory against the Aggies (24-9) provided further proof the culture surrounding FSU basketball is changing, indeed. The triumph was the Seminoles' first in an NCAA Tournament game since 1998. There was a celebration afterward, signifying this was more than just an ordinary early-round tournament victory.
It was the shedding of a weight. The act of a program taking another step forward.
"We like making history," freshman guard Ian Miller said.
He played a career-high 27 minutes and led the offense during key stretches in the second half. That wasn't necessarily expected, but FSU (22-10) thrived on the unexpected Friday.
The Seminoles received 12 second-half points from Derwin Kitchen, after he scored just three in the first half. Bernard James finished with 10, after scoring just two in the first half.
Most unexpected of all: FSU, which prides itself on a gritty man-to-man defense, used a 3-2 zone during the final 12 minutes — the decisive stretch in which the Seminoles took control for good.
FSU assistant Stan Jones figured the zone might work. He'd studied film of the Aggies struggling against it against Baylor and Boston College.
"They were scoring pretty at will on us there in the second half and coach said, why not give (the zone) a try," said FSU guard Luke Loucks, a former Clearwater High standout. "… Next thing you know we're in a zone the rest of the game."
FSU plays second-seeded Notre Dame on Sunday, their first meeting in basketball.
Kitchen had a team-high 15 points, and Michael Snaer punctuated the victory with a late dunk. But, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said, "There were a lot of heroes in this game."
Among them were Chris Singleton, the junior forward who returned after missing the past six games with a broken foot. He played 16 minutes and finished with four points but, Loucks said, Singleton's return "gave everyone a little boost of energy."
Then there was James, who was credited with three blocked shots but seemed to block twice as many. At one point in the second half, he scored eight consecutive points for the Seminoles, just when they were beginning to seize control.
At halftime Hamilton criticized his team for playing soft. He targeted James especially.
"He directly called me out and said I wasn't playing to my potential, and that I was just letting them bully me and I wasn't acting tough," James said.
So during the second half, James got tough. His teammates followed. After Texas A&M built an eight-point lead early in the second half, FSU answered with a 10-0 run that ended with a Snaer layup with 11:29 to play.
The Seminoles went to their zone defense around that time and the Aggies, who shot 31.4 percent overall, had no answers for it. FSU enjoyed the moment when it ended but only for "about three minutes," Loucks said. The Seminoles quickly remembered they hadn't reached an end point, but instead another beginning.
When it was over Friday James sat in the locker room with a pizza and soaked in the jubilant scene.
"If this isn't changing the culture," he said. "Then I don't know what is."