For Loucks and White, it's now or never at FSU
ATLANTA -- "We've come so far.''
Okaro White and Luke Loucks certainly have. By the time the teammates — one the graduate student point guard, the other a sophomore forward — found each other among a mob of reporters and camera flashes, it was raining confetti in Phillips Arena. The two owed themselves a brief moment away from the spotlight of their team’s accomplishment, if only to look back on the long journey that was once thought to be lost.
Hidden among the multitudes rushing the floor for Florida State's ACC Tournament championship victory over North Carolina, Loucks and White appeared vindicated, their joint endeavor justified.
"It’s just great, it's a great feeling to cut down the nets,'' said Loucks, an All-Tournament team selection. "Right after the game, we both said, 'We’ve come so far.' And I think we both just said, 'I love you, man. I can’t believe this is actually happening right now.'''
The Seminoles' ACC Tournament title could not have come at a better time. Loucks, already in graduate school, is in his last year of eligibility with Florida State, the team that refused to back down from the favored Tar Heels. White will return for another season next fall, but their mission would have been in vain with Loucks moving on.
This was a now-or-never month for the two former high school teammates.
Both Florida State starters were products of Clearwater (Fla.) High School, a state powerhouse on the basketball court. The guard-forward tag team said they practically grew up together, although separated by two years. Loucks, the older of the two, was already a junior when White entered high school as an eye-opening freshman.
Clearwater, according to both players, was considered the favorite to win the state championship in both years they played together. Those types of accomplishments are expected of high school teams with two such talented players. But the team missed its chance Loucks' junior year. Then, in 2008, they fell short of the state championship again.
Just like that, it was all over.
Loucks and White never even reached the title game.
"It was unfortunate, we had such a talented team growing up together,'' Loucks said. "We always played so well during the season, and then the postseason came around and for whatever reason — if we both got in foul trouble or teams upset us — we would lose. It was really unfortunate to never get that championship.''
Loucks graduated and committed to play for coach Leonard Hamilton, moving on to Tallahassee, where he played in all 35 games for the Seminoles as a true freshman. White, still a junior, was left to step into a leadership role at Clearwater. He led the Tornadoes to the state championship game that season.
"I joke with him because the year he left, my junior year, we went [to the state title game]. We lost by like three points, but we went,'' White said. "We talked about that all the time. We had never got a ring except for a class ring."
That was, apparently, not enough. White committed to play for Hamilton during his junior year, and the Tornado tandem was reunited on the basketball court last season, although it was more of the same result. North Carolina won the regular season ACC championship. Duke wore the conference tourney crown. The Seminoles were left to be upset by Cinderalla story VCU by a one point in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
Loucks and White were down to one last season once again.
But there was optimism. Hamilton's strong recruiting classes built a collection of talent that projected as “ready to challenge" for the conference championship.
The Seminoles ranked as one of the top defensive teams in the country for the third-consecutive season, but there was a different, more mature feel to this season's squad. Athleticism and defensive discipline were nothing knew, but the amount of experience on the team — Florida State boasts one of the oldest teams in the country — was. It paid off, too.
Loucks, White and their teammates went on a unpredictable run this season, one that was accented by breath-taking highs and mind-numbing lows. The Seminoles ran off a string of buzzer beaters to stay afloat in the ACC title race. They also lost 79-59 to conference middleweight Clemson and fell to lowly Boston College. As the 2011-12 regular season came to a close, another championship was out of reach, another one falling to the winner of Duke and North Carolina.
This ACC Tournament in Atlanta was circled on Florida State’s calendar. The Seminoles needed the win, if anything, to gain a sense of confirmation. Loucks and White needed something to look back on.
They both have that now.
On the shoulders of standout guard and Tournament MVP Michael Snaer’s 18 points, the Seminoles stole the Phillips Arena show. North Carolina made multiple runs to cut the Florida State lead, but the Seminoles would never relinquish that lead. A stunned, pro-Carolina crowd could only watch in disbelief as crimson and gold bodies rushed the court.
"From the moment [White] stepped on campus, it has been one of our goals ... to win an ACC title and a national championship,'' Loucks said. "It's a great feeling to cut down the nets.''
Streamers fell from the overhead scoreboard. Tournament workers scurried onto the hardwood with metal and rope to set up an awards stage. The extravagant championship atmosphere was set in motion from all corners of the arena, but there was one moment in the middle of it where everything stopped. It was time to come full circle.
"He came to me and I was telling him, 'We've been through so much,''' White said. "Coming through high school we were dying to get a championship and we finally got one. And we just had an emotional experience.''
The road is not at a dead end yet for the born-again teammates. Florida State’s road to the Final Four will be alleviated with its imposing run through the ACC Tournament field, and its talented perimeter and athletic front line give the Seminoles a puncher's chance against any team in the country. The college basketball world was put on notice Sunday afternoon: Hamilton’s kids do not back down. The locker room atmosphere made that clear as it rang loud with quotes from Seminole players professing that their team can beat any team on any given day.
Loucks and White repeated those sentiments, sitting side-by-side at their large wooden lockers.
When asked how the two ended up getting their lockers right next to each other, Loucks smiled before saying, "I don’t know, it just happened that way.''
It always does in March.