Two conference losses stick out above all the rest for the Florida State basketball team this year. They each came at home, and any Seminole fan knows exactly which squandered chances to which I'm referring. First, there was the Pitt game; and then there was last night's Miami tilt.
Those two contests kept 'Noles up at night, and had them still shaking their heads the next day-- but for different reasons. Against Pitt, FSU squandered a ten-point halftime advantage, only to see the Panthers finally take the lead in the game's final moment. Against the 'Canes, FSU trailed for nearly 37 of the 40 minutes, yet clawed its way back to have a real shot to win late. But while Pitt found those plays in January, Florida State came up short on Valentine's Day in a 67-65 loss.
It was ugly early on for the 'Noles, who turned the ball over ten times in the first half. Also, the starters decided to wait until halftime to start really contributing to the score. In the first half, the Florida State starting five combined for a scant six points, with Montay Brandon and Dwayne Bacon shutout entirely. FSU played with nice effort, but fumbled the ball around repeatedly, as the 'Canes seemed to capture just about every 50-50 ball. It felt like the young Seminoles may have been pressing in front of a raucous Tucker Center crowd in a big game against a rival stocked with veteran talent.
Still, as unproductive as the starters were early, you have to tip your cap to the bench for keeping FSU in this one. Though it was never too aesthetically pleasing, the Florida State reserves scrapped their way to a 37-26 halftime deficit (it could have been much worse). Devon Bookert led the way for the Seminoles on the evening, dropping 14 while shooting 3-5 from long range, and Benji Bell drained a pair of big threes to ignite the Tucker Center for the first time all night.
Another bright spot for the 'Noles was Boris Bojanovsky, who played like a man possessed in the second half. It's really tangible in the building how badly seniors like he and Bookert want to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Bojo finished with eight points on 4-6 shooting, but controlled the lane in the second half, picking up five boards, a steal, and five blocks.
FSU played very well in the second half, notching just three turnovers and matching the Hurricanes physically while outscoring them 39-30. Xavier Rathan-Mayes had a lot to do with bringing the Seminoles back from what was once a 13-point Miami advantage, pouring in 10 second-half points. But down the stretch, XRM made some crucial errors that the 'Noles simply cannot have from their point guard, not at this stage of the season. He twice dribbled into turnovers in the teeth of the Miami defense. He missed a fast-break layup with nobody between him and the basket.
And most notably, when FSU brought the ball up the court, down one, with a chance to win. FSU coach Leonard Hamilton told media that he wanted the ball in Bacon's hands for an isolation-- think the winning play against UF. Instead, it wound up with Rathan-Mayes, who promptly dribbled off his leg to all but seal the Seminoles' fate.
That said, no game comes down to just one possession. Baskets are worth just as much in the game's first few moments as they are in crunch time. And that highlights some issues this team is having, consistently, that are of serious concern down the stretch for a squad firmly perched on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Let's begin by going back to, well, the beginning. Once again, the 'Noles crept out of the gates, falling behind 9-2. Altering the starting lineup this late in the season is often frowned upon, but in games decided by a possession or two, which puts Florida State at greater jeopardy: tinkering with the starting five and risking the consequences of doing so, or accepting the status quo of regularly spotting your opposition a head start?
Another growing concern has been FSU's ineptitude from the free throw line. On the season, the 'Noles have made 69.45% from the charity stripe, but in their last five games, they've been nearly ten points lower, at a meager 60%. A missed attempt here and there doesn't often seem too alarming in the early going. But do they ever stick out when you lose by two. Against Miami, Florida State was 4-9 (44%).
So yes, Sunday night hurt. A win would have meant a second top-15 win, improved seeding in the ACC Tournament, and a chance to lay a stranglehold on a birth in the big dance. And it was there for the taking. But make no mistake about it: these 'Noles are still without a bad loss and very much alive. If they hope to remain so, they'd better learn from this one, and do so quickly.