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Basketball Breakdown: No. 8 UNC dominates in the paint, pulls away from No. 16 FSU

Florida State battled hard, but had no answer for Nassir Little.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State traveled to Chapel Hill looking to extend their school record ACC winning streak to nine games, but North Carolina had other ideas. A tightly contested battle for the first 30 minutes, the Tar Heels found another gear and pulled away for the 77-59 win.

Above the Rim:

  • At least on this day, UNC was clearly the better team. It’s true that a few bounces and banked shots went the way of the Tar Heels, making the final margin a little wider than what it could have been. But even if a few more calls went FSU’s way and even if the Tobacco Road bank stayed closed on Saturday, the Heels still would have emerged victorious. The good news is, NCAA Tournament games aren’t played on the road and I imagine this will end up being an excellent learning experience for the Seminoles.
  • For the first time since perhaps the Boston College game, FSU’s depth didn’t wear down their opponent. In fact, in the “championship rounds” it was UNC that seemed to find another level and push past a heavy legged Seminole team. The game wasn’t played at an overly fast—70 possessions, which is right at about Florida State’s average. But as the second half reached the mid-way point, FSU’s shots started missing the mark and their defensive pressure started to drop. Playing their 3rd road game in eight days undoubtedly had something to do with this. NBA players struggle with extended road trips, let alone college kids. But you also have to tip your cap to a UNC team that only played seven guys double digit minutes.
  • While the ‘Noles did block eight shots, the Tar Heels completely dominated the interior. During FSU’s 8-game win streak, Mfiondu Kabengele and Christ Koumadje took turns having monster performances. But against UNC neither guy was able to impose their will on the game. UNC did a fantastic job executing their interior defensive gameplan, preventing FSU from completing lobs around the basket and forcing FSU’s big men to catch the ball further away than they’d like. This led to FSU shooting just 8-28 on 2s. Again, the film from this game will likely be a tremendous learning experience, especially for a guy like Kabengele who seems to be able to transfer lessons from the practice gym to the games in near real-time.
  • Coming into the game, Florida State was hyper-aware of keeping UNC out of their transition game. Coby White might be the fastest guy in college basketball with the ball in his hands and committing live ball turnovers would have been a disaster. On this front, FSU executed their game plan quite nicely. The Seminoles only committed a turnover on 14% of their possessions, and UNC gabbed a steal on only 4.3% of their defensive possessions. This doesn’t come as a great surprise, as FSU leads the ACC in giving up the fewest steals on offense. However, it’s nice to see Florida State be able to prevent live ball turnovers on the road against a top 10 defense in the country.

Court Level:

  • Florida State simply had no answer for true freshman Nassir Little. Little, the MVP of last year’s McDonald’s All-American game (yes, over Zion Williamson) had an unremarkable campaign prior to Saturday. Dealing with a nagging ankle injury, the future lottery pick only scored seven points in the previous three games. But against FSU his explosion appeared all the way back and the Seminoles had trouble containing him the moment he entered the game off the bench. Kabengele couldn’t match his quick first step, M.J. Walker and Terance Mann had trouble with his strength, and Koumadje couldn’t defend him in space. If this Nassir Little shows up in the NCAA Tournament, UNC just might be the title favorite.
  • Trent Forrest, after missing an extended period of the game against Clemson (following his most explosive dunk all year), again was forced to the bench in obvious pain. Forrest has managed his toe injury as well as anyone could have imagined, but it seems this road trip has left him banged up pretty good. It will be imperative for him to continue to play smart and pick his spots as the calendar turns to March.
  • Forrest’s back-up, David Nichols, carried FSU offensive for much of the game. The grad transfer from Albany displayed one of the primary traits that got him to Tallahassee in the first place: his outside shooting touch. Nichols’ play in the first half allowed FSU cut a 13 point lead down to just three at the half. Hitting double digits for the first time since January 22, hopefully this game and experience will provide Nichols with the confidence to step up in March when the Seminoles will need him on the big stage. As we saw last year, deep NCAA Tourney runs require contributions to come from all over the roster and with Forrest hobbled the rest of the season, Florida State will need strong efforts from Nichols.
  • Phil Cofer is clearly still struggling to find his rhythm after missing nearly half the season. The 5th year senior has shown flashes of what we saw last year when he led FSU in scoring, but, as to be expected with a guy who misses months of practice, he just isn’t anywhere close to consistent yet. The good news is, his conditioning appears to finally be at 85-90%, as he’s played 26+ minutes in 5 of the last 6 games. That’s usually the first step for a recovering athlete to getting back to his peak performance. Next comes timing and muscle memory, and then, finally, mental confidence. FSU has four games remaining in the regular season and at least one in the ACC Tournament, so hopefully Cofer can get there by mid-March.
  • Freshmen Devin Vassell and RaiQuan Gray each had some positive moments against the Tar Heels, but both also looked...well, like freshmen. Keeping with the learning trend, neither had been asked to do too much in previous games against elite opponents (Vassell’s 14 minutes was more than he played against Duke, Virginia, and Purdue combined) and this experience should help as the stakes, like the sun in the sky, continue to rise this spring.
  • The hero of FSU’s second round upset over Xavier last March, PJ Savoy’s game has expanded this year and we’ve seen him play solid defense, set up teammates, and even attack the basket. Not yesterday. Savoy played less than 10 minutes in a game for the first time since January 10, 2018. He was 0-3 with no other stats recorded. Just flush this one and move on, PJ, we need you to be right in March.

At the Scorer’s Table:

Tasting defeat for the first time in more than a month, FSU needs to regroup quickly. Notre Dame comes to Tallahassee for a Monday night tip, barely 48 hours from the completion of this game. The Irish are the first of three straight home games for the Seminoles. With coveted double-bye in the ACC Tournament still well within their grasp, the ‘Noles need to take care of business against a struggling Notre Dame team that has lost 4 of their last five games and sits at 13-14 on the season.