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As its coach calmly watches, Florida State upsets Gonzaga to continue tourney run

Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabengele blocks the shot of Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura during a Sweet 16 game Thursday at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The dunk sent Staples Center into a frenzy.

After Florida State’s Phil Cofer left the basket shaking after a two-handed putback of a missed shot late in the second half Thursday, his teammates jumped up and down. The Seminoles rooting section broke into the tomahawk chop. Music boomed. Cheerleaders pumped garnet and gold pompoms in the air.

And Florida State’s coach? Leonard Hamilton rested both hands on his hips, the lone concession to the bedlam. The blank expression on his face that could fool a veteran poker player never wavered.

On the cusp of perhaps the biggest victory of 47-year coaching career, Hamilton appeared to be the most tranquil person in the arena.

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Behind the coach with supernatural calm, ninth-seeded Florida State stunned fourth-seeded Gonzaga 75-60 in the Sweet 16.

“It’s interesting that we probably are the only ones who believe that we’re capable of doing this and it’s fun because we’re overcoming,” Hamilton said. “We’re always the underdog. We’re always clawing and scratching and scratching and clawing, just trying to put ourselves in position where we feel that we’re capable of going.”

Florida State’s Phil Cofer dunks against Gonzaga during a Sweet 16 game Thursday against Gonzaga at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times )

The Seminoles (23-11) face Michigan at Staples Center on Saturday with a trip to the Final Four at stake.

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Earlier this week, Florida State trailed top-seeeded Xavier by double-digits midway through the second half. The Seminoles, using the same deep bench and aggressive press that flummoxed Gonzaga, rallied for the upset.

Still, Florida State entered the arena Thursday as an underdog. The Bulldogs, after all, were in the midst of their 21st consecutive appearance in the tournament and had won 16 straight games, the nation’s longest active streak.

Hamilton, 69, had never taken a team deeper than the Sweet 16 as a head coach.

“This team has had confidence all year long that we were capable of doing some good things with the opportunity that’s been presented,” he said. “We’ve had some very good games. Our youthful inexperience, I think, has raised its ugly head several times and it’s cost us.”

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But the Seminoles jumped out to an early 12-point lead and left Gonzaga (32-5) playing from behind much of the game. The Bulldogs played without 6-foot-10 forward Killian Tillie, a late scratch from the lineup after reaggravating a hip injury. The absence seemed to throw Gonzaga off kilter against Florida State’s long lineup and bench that goes 10 deep.

Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura is swarmed by Florida State defenders during a Sweet 16 game Thursday at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times )

The Bulldogs didn’t go quietly. Midway through the first half, they used a 15-0 run to briefly take a three-point lead. But the Seminoles, who lost five of eight games to start the season, fought back.

“I think we did a good job of speeding them up,” said Florida State’s Terance Mann, who scored a game-high 18 points, “and then we suck to our game plan.”

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The heavily pro-Gonzaga crowd roared at the smallest positive sign from a team that once appeared to be a contender to advance to the Final Four.

But Florida State forced the Bulldogs into 33.9% shooting from the field — including a slew of missed shots close to the basket — and outscored Gonzaga’s bench, 30-6.

As the upset became inevitable, Hamilton’s low-key approach didn’t change. He is the co-founder of a gospel music label. He is more excited by an invitation to a former player’s wedding than a big win on the court. He is not your ordinary coach.

During the string of fast breaks and dunks to build a lead the Bulldogs couldn’t touch, Hamilton ambled up and down the sideline. Sometimes he sat in the middle of the bench, all but anonymous if you didn’t know he was the head coach. He resumed pacing, occasionally grinning or stroking his chin. Once he kicked the air after a missed three-pointer. Those small displays of emotion were exceptions, however. Most of the time, Hamilton’s face remained expressionless, no matter how excited his players got as the minutes ticked away.

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“What we have to do now is not allow ourselves to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said. “The most important thing is for us to stay dialed in together and make sure that we’re focused and understand the team that has the right mental approach more than likely will be the team that’s going to be successful.”

Hamilton’s face didn’t change. The coach remained the calmest man in the room.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter @nathanfenno

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