There were questions being asked about Florida State (25-7) before the NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles played solid during the regular season but had yet to really notch a signature win. The Noles had only two top 25 RPI wins and both of those were against #25 Miami. To further cast doubt FSU lost to those same Hurricanes in their first game of the ACC Tournament. Those questions are now being answered in emphatic fashion as FSU led virtually wire to wire as they rolled over the Texas A&M Aggies (22-10) in College Station by a final score of 74-56.
FSU has been plagued by slow starts at times this year especially on the road. In this case that was not a problem. The Noles set the tone early. FSU failed to score on their first possession but they were able to get four offensive rebounds. This would be a theme for the entire game as the Noles beat the Aggies up on the boards for a 44-35 rebounding edge.
On the next possession Anriel Howard (8pts, 13reb) scored on a layup to give TAMU a 2-0 lead. That lead lasted for seven seconds as Leticia Romero (17pts, 6ast) responded with a triple. It would be A&M's only lead of the game. After Romero's shot Emiah Bingley (5pts, 3ast) added another three to give FSU a 6-2 lead. The teams traded baskets until FSU hit the Aggies with their first run of the game. This one was an 8-0 run that was sparked by the first points from Adut Bulgak (18pts, 13reb). The run was ended by a Rachel Mitchell (4pts, 2reb, 2blk) jumper but FSU was heating up from the field. After a layup from Howard FSU countered with a couple of three balls from Brittany Brown (16pts, 8reb, 4stls) and Romero to stretch the lead to eight. This was part of a 10-4 run from FSU to end the first quarter that gave the Noles a 27-16 lead at the break.
Bulgak stepped up to start the second quarter. She had a three pointer, a defensive rebound and a block in the first minute of the quarter. This strong play sparked FSU to a 9-2 run that gave the Noles a 36-20 lead. The Aggies fought back with four straight points but then the Seminoles went on another run. This time it was an 11-2 run that ended when Brown hit a big triple to beat the buzzer to end the half. The officials checked but it was clearly good and the Noles went into the locker room with a 47-26 lead and a ton of momentum.
In the third quarter Texas A&M refused to raise the white flag. The Aggies scored the first five points of the half all courtesy of Chelsea Jennings (15pts). After that the two teams mostly traded baskets. FSU was getting scoring from a variety of players and Texas A&M was getting points basically from Courtney Walker (18pts, 7reb). The All-American wing had eight points in the quarter but the Noles still maintained a 64-43 lead going into the fourth quarter.
When you have a 21 point lead going into the fourth it is easy to relax a bit and that is what happened to the Seminoles. The Aggies pressed all over the court and even though the press didn't generate many turnovers the Noles had a bit of trouble getting into their offense. As a result A&M scored the first six points of the quarter to cut the lead to 15. Those six points were the beginning of what would become a 13-2 run for the Aggies to start the fourth quarter. They used the run to cut the lead to 10 and for one of the few times all night the crowd was able to get into the game. However, it wouldn't last as the Noles came back to score the last eight points of the game and win by 18.
This was clearly the best game FSU has played all season. That is true from both a subjective and an objective perspective. Subjectively FSU played excellent defense all night making A&M make contested shots and the Noles denied the Aggies second shots by cleaning the glass so well. The Seminoles also ran efficient offense and hit the open shots that were generated by that offense. The Noles also were 16-18 from the free throw line. FSU also played a relatively clean game with only 14 turnovers. The important part was that few of them were live ball turnovers (a lot were offensive fouls) so the Noles didn't get burned in transition very often. The Aggies only had four fast break points in the game.
Objectively this was the best result the Noles have had this season. This is only the second road win against a ranked team for FSU this season (Miami was the first) but this was in the Tournament so it's obviously bigger. This game also gives FSU great momentum going into the game against Baylor this weekend.
FSU had plenty of players step up today. Adut Bulgak clearly isn't ready for her college career to end. She stepped up really big scoring in a variety of ways and getting tough rebounds. In addition to Bulgak, Romero and Brown, Ivey Slaughter played really well. She had 10 points and nine rebounds and played her usual excellent defense. Leading scorer Shakayla Thomas has yet to really get on track in this Tournament but that makes this performance all the more impressive because it shows that the Noles can get even better.
Florida State moves on to face top seeded Baylor (35-1) in Dallas in the Sweet 16 on Saturday March 26. The Seminoles will be significant underdogs in that game but if FSU plays like they did tonight they will give themselves every chance to win.