For fragile FSU, first comes healing, then comes Murray State's Morant
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HARTFORD - The wails cut through the Florida State locker room Thursday night like a Ginsu knife, piercing the silence that befell it after Phil Cofer fell to his knees.

Cofer - the fifth-year senior who serves as Florida State's emotional leader and battled back from myriad injuries to make a true impact in his last two seasons - was just delivered harrowing news: his father, Mike, a former NFL Pro Bowl linebacker, died at age 58 after a long battle with amyloidosis.

The jubilation of a seven-point win over a feisty Vermont team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was followed by the lowest of lows for Cofer.

For a moment, his teammates stood or sat in stunned silence. Members of the media lowered their cameras and microphones. Team managers looked around in a panic. Teammates rushed to him, one, then another, crawling under his arms to prop him up. His legs - including the sore foot that kept him sidelined from Thursday's game - had buckled.

The only sounds bouncing off the walls were deep, painful, anguished screams.

A day later, the trauma remained fresh.

"I told my wife that I'll remember those screams - those cries - for the rest of my life," Florida State assistant coach Charlton Young said Friday.

Now the Seminoles are tasked with an almost Herculean challenge: heal in a hurry, then stop Ja Morant and Murray State on Saturday.

The healing began Thursday night.

After Cofer's tormented pleas rendered the locker room speechless, and the area was cleared of non-team personnel, the Seminoles rallied around their leader.

"I didn't know how to feel about it," Seminoles redshirt freshman forward RaiQuan Gray said. "That's my big brother right there. For him to go through that hurt all of us. He's the emotional leader of this team. I've never seen him cry. That shook me."

Mike Cofer's illness was not a surprise to the team; he'd battled the incurable disease since 2007. Cofer, who hailed from Knoxville, Tenn., was an All-American for Rule High and starred for the nearby Tennessee Volunteers from 1979 to 1982. He was a third-round pick by the Detroit Lions in 1983 and spent a decade with the franchise, peaking in 1988 with his Pro Bowl nod.

His battle with amyloidosis - a rare disease that causes an abnormal buildup of the amyloid protein in organs such as the kidney and heart - was chronicled in a 2013 story by Mike Strange of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

"I'm a fighter," Cofer told Strange. "That's in my genes."

It's in his son's genes, too.

"He's the ultimate competitor and fighter," teammate Trent Forrest said of Phil Cofer. "And we're going to try to be everything he is out there on the court."

The Seminoles tried to comfort Cofer and find a measure of healing before they got back to basketball.

"We tried to regroup and show him as much love as we could," Forrest said.

"Phil is a strong, tough guy," teammate P.J. Savoy added. "You never see him cry. To see him go through that, it hurt. We're a close-knit group - when he cried, we all cried. It was very emotional, but we hope this propels us forward emotionally."

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Forrest said the coaching staff "did a good job of giving us time just to decompress and take it all in, the time to clear our minds." Young added that the team psychiatrist was available to counsel any player or staff member.

When asked about Mike Cofer during his Friday press conference, Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton described him as "one of the most competitive human beings that has ever played in the NFL."

"Tremendous amount of character, loved and respected by everyone," Hamilton said. "Not only the guys who played with him, teammates, but anybody who's ever been around him after his playing career was over. He is a guy who had to endure an unbelievably challenging, debilitating disease that mentally and emotionally was draining in itself. But the physical toll it took on his body is beyond anything that you possibly could explain. And he never complained."

Hamilton said Phil Cofer will remain with the Seminoles, but with the foot injury that kept him sidelined against Vermont, his playing status for deeper rounds remains unknown.

"We spent a lot of time last night dealing with it in our own way," Hamilton said. "Our heart goes out to the Cofer family. They have been unbelievable Seminoles. We'll be there for Phil in every way possible. We have a culture on our basketball team, I think, that's healthy and we're going to do everything we can to minimize the effect."

One thing that cannot be minimized is the impact Murray State's Ja Morant has on any basketball game he features in, which has caused the Seminoles to quickly shift their focus to the 28-4 Racers and their star point guard.

Morant - a probable top-five pick in the NBA draft whose stock continues to rise - is not so much a basketball player as he is a wizard.

He had 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds in an 83-64 upset of No. 5 Marquette on Thursday. It was the NCAA Tournament's first triple-double since Michigan State's Draymond Green recorded one in 2012. Morant averaged a sensational 24.4 points, 10.2 assists, and 5.7 rebounds this season for one of the best college stat lines in recent memory.

"The kid is definitely a top-five player," Young said. "He reminds me of Fat Lever, who played for the Denver Nuggets, but he affects the game like John Stockton. Great point guards live in the opponent's paint. When you play Ja Morant, you've got a guy with high-speed WiFi in your paint. ... He sees everything."

Hamilton, who has seen his fair share of top picks as an ACC coach for nearly two decades, also compared Morant to a pair of NBA greats: Tiny Archibald and Magic Johnson. High praise for a college sophomore.

"Some guys, they play harder and with more intensity when they make shots," Hamilton said. "When (Morant) completes a pass and makes an assist, you can just see him glowing. That's an unusual player and you don't get a chance to play against people like that. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him."

But before dealing with Morant comes more processing of the pain.

While the Seminoles remain unified in their mission, their attention is understandably divided. Their eyes are on Morant and the Racers, and their hearts are with Cofer and his family.

"He still wants us to play," Savoy said. "He's hurting, but we're here for a reason. He wants this season to be special. We have to make sure we refocus, do all the little things. We can't lose off this. This has to be something that sparks us, something that motivates us to work even harder, to get Phil to where he's never been."

After an Elite Eight run last season, that would mean the Final Four.

A fitting ending for the Seminoles, and a proper tribute to Mike Cofer, to whom Florida State has dedicated its season.

For fragile FSU, first comes healing, then comes Murray State's Morant
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