There was no drama this bright, sunny February afternoon, no opportunity for the heroic plays that define Michael Snaer’s career.
Florida State came out with the energy of a dead battery, the cohesion of Congress, and never led. Futilely trying to keep his team within hailing distance, the greatest clutch player of recent ACC vintage scored 13 points, and took 13 shots to do it.
A Wake Forest fan who‘d been razzing the visitors all afternoon summed up the proceedings with a backhand slap at his own team, shouting, “Can you imagine losing by 20 on the road to Wake?”
In fact, the final margin was 25.
“We didn’t respect our opponent, basically,” FSU guard Montay Brandon said following the 71-46 defeat by the Demon Deacons. Wake, 0-6 on the road in the ACC and 11-12 overall, is now 4-1 at home in league play.
Florida State, meanwhile, already has lost six times at home, twice in four ACC outings. The defending ACC champs -- proudly proclaimed a “program of significance” by coach Leonard Hamilton just a few months ago -- are 3-3 on the road within the league and 13-10 overall.
Only a minor miracle can prevent the end of FSU’s school-record run of four straight NCAA appearances.
If miracles are to be had, the likely catalyst will be Snaer, a senior with an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion at game’s end.
The Californian grew up eager to emulate the last-second legerdemain of L.A. Lakers Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. He’s succeeded, with five game-winning shots to his credit against five different ACC teams since a January 21, 2012 buzzer-beater at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Three of Snaer’s daggers were delivered within a 13-day span this season – a banked 3-pointer against Clemson, a three against Maryland, and a precedent-confounding finger roll he called “kind of a broken, lucky play” at Georgia Tech.
“It’s crazy,” Brandon said admiringly of Snaer’s flair.
“It’s more of a challenge to get him the ball” in those situations, said Brandon, a freshman point guard. “Everybody knows he’s going to shoot the ball at the end of the game.”
There’s little mystery once a clutch player emerges.
“I hear them saying it all the time, end-of-game situations,” Snaer said of his teammates. “They’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve got the ball. There’s five seconds left. Don’t worry, Mike got it.’”
Recognizing that capability is in some ways as simple as the formulation for defining “hard-core pornography” famously offered by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 case. ”I know it when I see it,” Stewart wrote.
“What makes a clutch player is very simple, other than the required talent, of course,” said Dan Bonner, the former Virginia player who’s commented on ACC telecasts for 33 years. “If you have the required talent, it’s a player who wants the ball at the end of the game.
“If somebody wants the ball at the end of the game, there’s nothing you can do to stop him. If he doesn’t want the ball at the end of the game, there’s nothing a coach can do to get it to him.”
Dan Collins, author of the forthcoming book, “ACC Book of Fame”, said what defines a clutch player is “making the plays that matter the most when it matters the most.”
By that standard there’s little doubt the ACC’s best were Duke’s Christian Laettner (1989-92) and N.C. State’s David Thompson (1973-75), the league’s greatest player of all.
“I would say Laettner and Thompson – he was another guy who would not let his team lose,” Collins observed.
After that, identifying the ACC’s great clutch players is a discussion at once engrossing and open-ended.
No such list is complete without UNC’s Michael Jordan, who not only won games with jumpers, but twice converted steals to baskets to decide games. Jordan also teamed with Sam Perkins to block a last-second layup attempt by Maryland’s Chuck Driesell to preserve a one-point win at Carmichael Auditorium in 1983.
In fact, most every school has a fondly recalled clutch player or two.
At Virginia they cite the game-winning ways of Jeff Lamp (1978-81). The Cavaliers also got repeated clutch plays from Bryant Stith (1989-92) and Todd Billet (2003, 2004).
From Clemson (Greg Buckner) to Duke (Steve Vacendak, David Henderson) to Georgia Tech (Dennis Scott), from early days to players of recent vintage (Carolina’s Harrison Barnes), it’s almost as much fun arguing who makes the grade (with key or multiple game-winning shots) as savoring the plays themselves.
There’s no doubt Snaer, last year’s ACC Tournament MVP, belongs on that list.
“When we need it, I try to come through for my team -- whenever we’re in striking distance, to actually make that happen,” Snaer said in an empty locker room following his final visit to Winston-Salem’s Joel Memorial Coliseum. “It’s not necessarily I want to take (the decisive shot), I want to make the right play at the end of the game, whether it’s me taking it or me having to get in the lane and passing to somebody else to take it.”
That unselfishness was memorably reinforced long ago. Snaer did drive, drew the defense, and passed to a freshman late in an important game at Rancho Verde High School. The shot missed, but Snaer’s prep coach praised the decision as the right choice.
These days Snaer’s coach approvingly watches him work alone or with a manager, maneuvering among traffic cones and chairs, taking endless free throws and shots with game-like intensity, building confidence to the point he’s comfortable with any eventuality.
“He has the ability to put himself in that magical moment, an imaginary moment, when he comes in the gym working by himself,” Hamilton said. “You do that over and over and over, you’re relaxed and focused.”
Sure enough, asked what thoughts go through his mind when he has the ball with a game on the line, Snaer said emphatically: “None.”
FSU’s leader in scoring (13.9), assists (55), steals (23), 3-pointers (44-113), and turnovers (61) said he relies instead on instincts honed beyond the crucible of competition.
“You’ve got to trust yourself, you’ve got to calm yourself down and trust that you can take your time and trust in your instincts that you’re going to make this shot,” he said.
By now, others instinctively have the same expectation.
“Confidence definitely trickles over,” Snaer noted in regard to his teammates. “I think guys would be more shocked if I missed a game-winner than if I made one.”
So would the rest of us.