Florida State junior point guard Nate Johnson had a career scoring night Thursday, but he made his biggest points in, of all places, the locker room at halftime.
With the No. 9-seeded Seminoles trailing No. 8 Clemson by eight in the Atlantic Coast Conference play-in game, the soft-spoken Johnson told his teammates they all had to lay it on the line or else.
"I'm not ready to finish the season yet," he told them defiantly.
"When Nate said that, "I'm going to give my all the next 20 minutes,' I believed him," junior guard Tim Pickett said.
Buoyed by a pair of Johnson 3-pointers, the Seminoles seized control with a stunning 20-1 run to start the half and easily beat the Tigers 72-61 before 16,135 at the Greensboro Coliseum.
"This was a very, very important game for us because we've had so many near victories this year," said coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team needs another win to assure itself of being eligible for the NIT.
The Seminoles (14-14) came agonizingly close against Florida and North Carolina, both one-point losses, to Maryland, a two-point loss, and to the team they face at noon today, top-seeded Wake Forest (23-4). FSU lost 60-56 to the Demon Deacons on Feb. 26.
"We really can't use the regular-season game as a barometer because we all know that they've improved and things have changed since then," Hamilton said. "Plus, we're a different team."
On this night, that began with Johnson.
Defensively and offensively.
The junior college transfer drew the assignment to contain Clemson senior Edward Scott, a first-team All-ACC selection and the league's second-leading scorer (18.0). Scott scored 29 points on 9 of 16 shooting in the Tigers' 74-60 win against FSU three weeks ago.
"Last game, he had his way with us," Johnson said. "Coach told us to try and make him take bad shots and it would be harder for him to score."
Under Hamilton, the Seminoles understand tenaciously, swarming to shooters. They entered the game second in the league in field-goal percentage defense (.390) and did a good job stopping Scott and the Tigers (15-13) for much of the first half.
But after taking a 22-17 lead on a Pickett jumper with 6:09 left, the Seminoles' offense deserted them and their defense wasn't far behind. The Tigers closed the half with a 19-6 run for a 36-28 lead.
Then Johnson delivered his short but to the point halftime talk.
Then he delivered the points.
His back-to-back 3-pointers gave the Seminoles the lead for good, 38-37. He finished with a career-high 18 points on 5 of 6 shooting, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc. Not too shabby for a guy who entered the tournament in a 3-for-25 shooting slump.
"Nate just shoots the lights out every day in practice," Hamilton said. "We know he's very capable, but he's a point guard and he wants to get all his teammates involved, almost to a fault. He realized tonight we needed him to step up (offensively)."
Johnson said assistant Stan Jones had been on him all week to be more of a scoring threat.
"Tonight, I just came out and let it go," he said.
Meanwhile, he and an inspired FSU defense shut down Scott. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-18 shooting. The Tigers, who seem likely to end up in the NIT, were held to 8-of-27 shooting (.296) in the second half.
"Nate really showed that great leadership," said Pickett, who had 22 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. "He showed that he can be one of the ultimate point guards in this league."