Playing in front of a jam packed Tucker Center, Florida State started and finished poorly, but built a big enough lead midway through the second half to hang on for an 85-84 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. With the win, FSU moves to 7-1 in ACC play and 17-2 on the season.
For the first time in the history of the building now known as the Donald L. Tucker Center, the Florida State men’s basketball team took the court ranked in the top five of the AP Poll, and for the first four minutes it appeared like the moment might have been too big for the youthful Seminoles. The starters came out with what could only be described as a nervous energy, losing their men on defense for open threes and throwing it into the stands or Irish hands on offense. Seemingly nothing could go right.
At the under 16 minute media timeout, the visiting Irish were sporting a 15-4 lead after a near perfect start to the game. Then the Seminole bench came to the rescue.
Anthony Polite, as is often the case, paid immediate dividends on the defensive side when he drew a charge and then hounded Notre Dame guards into a couple of bad passes. Polite also supplied a couple of three balls that jump started the Seminole offense.
Speaking of offense, Wyatt Wilkes brought a contagious energy off the bench that proved to be a lightning spark of fire. After following his own miss with an offensive board, Wilkes was fouled and made a pair of free throws. He then proceeded to bury not one, not two, not three, but four first half threes from all over the court. This not only ignited the offense, but it also electrified the crowd.
The digits on the scoreboard changed rapidly. The Fighting Irish led 18-8 with 13:43 left in the half, but an 8-0 burst faster than Dalvin Cook turning the corner made it 18-16 just one minute and twenty three seconds later. Coming out of the under 12 media timeout, another 10-0 spurt gave FSU a 26-18 lead at the 10:51 mark. For all the non-math majors out there, that’s an 18-0 run in less than three minutes.
When the dust settled, Wilkes, Polite, Dominik Olejniczak, and Balsa Koprivica fueled a 39-19 explosion over the final 13:40 of the first half and turned an early 11 point deficit into a 47-37 locker room lead. Wilkes tied his career high of 14 set earlier this season against St. Francis just in the first half.
The second half began a little bit like the first. FSU, trying to connect on a Mike Tyson knockout ally-oop, threw it out of bounds on the first possession. Notre Dame made a couple buckets and the lead was quickly down to five.
But a couple of quick layups from Raiquan Gray pushed the margin back to nine and then FSU’s three point shooting remained hot. M.J. Walker, who sat much of the first half after picking up a minor injury, nailed one from the wing to make it 56-44. A couple minutes later Polite made his third of the game, followed by Wilkes making his fifth of the game on the next possession. One possession later, Gray made just his fifth of the season and the lead was suddenly 71-57.
However, Mike Brey coached teams don’t often quit and this one was no different. Despite coming into the game ranked 333rd in FTA/FGA, the Fighting Irish got to the line early and often in both halves—and they made them at a strong clip too. With 4 minutes to play in the second half, Notre Dame had attempted nine free throws (making 8) to FSU’s zero. Add in back to back threes by Prentiss Hubb and the Seminoles led by just 7 with 3:48 left.
Two Trent Forrest free throws pushed the margin back up to nine, but an easy dunk for John Mooney after Notre Dame broke the press cut it right back to seven. Then, following a Polite missed jumper, a pair of free throws by Hubb cut it down to just five.
A once jubilant crowd now seemed to be feeling their anxiety build. So too were the players. Wilkes missed his first three of the game, tossing up an airball that led to what looked like a fast break opportunity. But Notre Dame didn’t want to take advantage, traveling on back to back possessions.
Forrest made 1 of 2 free throws after a technical foul was assessed on the Fighting Irish bench, bringing the lead up to six. The FSU defense then forced a shot clock violation and it looked like the ‘Noles might salt the game away. But they couldn’t get several attempts around the basket to fall and Notre Dame cut it down to 83-79 with less than a minute to play.
Doing what he does best, Polite made a fantastic defensive play to force a turnover with 30 seconds left and Notre Dame was forced to foul. Forrest connected on a pair of free throws and the game felt safe at 85-79. But the Irish continued to fight.
Prentiss Hubb drained a deep, step-back three with Polite all over him to make it a one-possession game at 85-82. Then a steal on a bad in-bounds pass led to an easy layup and suddenly the packed house in Tallahassee had a one point game on their hands. 85-84 with 16.9 seconds left.
Five second violation. Was it a quick whistle? Maybe. But Gray has to do a better job of having a timer in his head and his teammates need to do a better job of giving him a pass.
What followed was 17 seconds of scramble. Notre Dame looked like they had three or four chances to score an easy basket at the rim, including off the initial in-bounds. But Gray made up for his late game errors and stuffed Juwan Durham at the rim. Bodies were flying everywhere as folks tried to tracked down the loose ball that eventually made its way back to nearly half court, but ND would get possession one more time after another block. Fortunately for Seminole fans, Dane Goodwin’s off balance three fell short as the buzzer sounded and FSU escaped 85-84.
The magic of Tuck prevails again.
Wilkes led FSU with 19 points in 19 minutes. Gray added 13 and 4, with 11 of his points coming in the second half, though his late turnovers almost proved fatal. Playing for the first time in four games, Koprivika made an impact on both ends and finished with 6 points and 6 rebounds, 4 of them offensive.
For the game, FSU shot 92.9% from the free throw line, but they only took 14 attempts. Compare that to Notre Dame who made 22 of 27, including 10-11 in the second half. In the end, FSU shooting 12 of 18 from three (Wilkes and Polite combined for 8) and forcing Notre Dame into more turnovers than they are accustomed to saved the day for the Seminoles.
Coach Hamilton says his prayers were answered, talks about his and the team’s confidence in Wilkes, and a lot of other great stuff.
This is too much to describe, just do yourself a favor and listen to Wilkes for five minutes:
Raiquan Gray talks about the team’s poor start, what happened on the late in-bounds, the team’s confidence in Wilkes, and what they learned in the first UVA game that can better prepare them for this week.