With Virginia Tech shooting back from a double-digit deficit on Tuesday night, Florida State forward Bernard James said he had one thing running through his head: We’re not going to lose this game.
“I just got the mindset that I was going to do whatever it takes … that we were not going to fall to 0-2 [in the ACC],’’ the senior said.
That’s when the 6-foot-10 former Air Force sergeant showed just what kind of player he can be -- and maybe his team can be? -- when he plays with ruthless focus, aggression and energy.
FSU’s lead chipped to four points, James grabbed two offensive rebounds and slammed them back in the closing minutes, securing his team’s first league victory and his best game of the season (18 points, a career-high 15 rebounds (nine offensive), three blocks, 6-for-8 from the free throw line).
It was an important outcome for the Seminoles, who were expected to be a top-25 team, but had lacked the consistent unity, leadership and consistent physical defense that made them a Sweet 16 team last year. (It lost to two Ivy League teams this season, and then its ACC opener at Clemson by 20 points).
It was an important step for James, especially with Saturday’s showdown with No. 3 North Carolina on the horizon.
“I felt like I’d been in a little slump the last few games … so I knew I needed to play better defense, knew I needed to concentrate on rebounding and defense,” he said.
Those skills have been James’ bread-and-butter since joining FSU from Tallahassee Community College last season (and after three tours of duty in Iraq). Now at age 26, James may be the elder statesman on a team that calls him “Sarge,” but he has a lot less hoops experience than most of his teammates, since he didn’t play organized hoops until a supervisor volunteered him for an intramural team in the service.
It wasn’t until facing the best big guys in the ACC last season that he realized that he could play with, and potentially better than, the best big guys in the ACC. So during the offseason, James put on some more weight so he wouldn’t be pushed around as easily. He worked on his shot.
He changed up his free throw routine, trying to find a more consistent release, "and I don't leave the gym until I make 150 each day," he said.
Tuesday, it all came together for the athletic big man, who is averaging 10.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
The goal now: keep it together for the Tar Heels, who escaped the Leon County Civic Center after hitting a game winner in the final seconds last season.
“That game was a heartbreaker,’’ James said. “We fought so hard … and Harrison Barnes hit a great shot. It’s been on my mind -- it’s something I’ve been thinking about, leading up to this game.”
And should serve as an extra motivator (as if he and his team need it, what with the gaze and hoopla of ESPN’s College GameDay coming to town.)
James said he loves the challenge of matching up with the best big guys in the league, and he’ll get another chance against UNC’s tall and talented frontcourt of 6-11 John Henson and 7-foot Tyler Zeller.
He plans to enter the game with the same whatever-it-takes mentality that helped him push his team to Tuesday’s win. And he believes his teammates will bring it, too.
"I think we’ve found our rhythm,’’ he said. “It’s taken a long time, we’ve kind of been up and down all season. But for the last three halves of basketball, we’ve played very well, and together. So I do think we’ve finally found that formula.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.