Coming off a hard-fought road loss to Duke, the Florida State Seminoles returned to Tallahassee and the friendly confines of the Tucker Center to sneak by the Syracuse Orange, 80-77. The win moves FSU to 21-4 on the season and keeps alive Florida State’s slim hopes of earning the ACC Tournament one seed.
The Seminoles began the game like they finished the one earlier this week in Durham— with cold shooting. The ‘Noles had four looks on the first possession thanks to physical offensive rebounding, yet still walked away with zero points. Syracuse then rattled off a pair of buckets to take an early four point lead, but FSU responded with a 10-0 run behind two threes from M.J. Walker and some excellent rebounding by Anthony Polite.
Having a guard be able to crash the defensive glass and rebound out of his area, as Polite is capable of doing, often results in a transition bucket or an open shot on the secondary break before the defense recovers. In this case it was both.
Next, it was the Orange’s turn to go on a mini-run, as they cut it to 12-10. From there the two teams traded baskets and free throws in a good stretch of up-and-down action. FSU would go up four or five points, only to see Syracuse cut it back to one or two. Wyatt Wilkes, playing rare “two-foul minutes,” made a pair of threes during this stretch and Walker added one as well.
Meanwhile, Marek Dolezaj, himself playing with two fouls, grabbed two long offensive boards to keep multiple possessions alive for the Orange, otherwise FSU might have been able to put some distance between themselves and their visitors from the north. Syracuse finally grabbed a 26-25 lead on a transition three-ball by Dolezaj, but FSU took it right back on a pair of free throws by Malik Osborne.
FSU repeatedly executed well enough against the 2-3 zone in the first half to get the ball into the soft spots, but didn’t seem to be aggressive enough in going up through contact on shot attempts. Another factor working against the Seminoles was a facial injury to Walker. Combined with Devin Vassell’s mysterious absence, the ‘Noles were left playing the final 11:41 of the first half without either of their top two offensive weapons.
And for long stretches it showed. FSU scored 20 points in the first 8:20 of the game, but only managed nine in the next 9:04.
The two teams were tied at 29 for nearly 3 minutes before a quick burst by FSU made it 38-31 with 1 minute remaining. A pair of SU free throws cut the lead to five, but a Patrick Williams three from the wing pushed it out to 41-33 at the half. FSU closed on a 12-4 run over the final 2:37.
With neither Vassell or Walker on the court to open the second half, ‘Cuse came out in attack mode, as you would expect from a team playing for its NCAA Tournament lives, The Orange immediately chopped the eight-point halftime deficit to just three by the under-16 timeout, at 47-44. Syracuse star Elijah Hughes, who was questionable coming into the game, made a pair of threes during this stretch, while FSU continued to forge on without either of its sharp shooters.
Out of the timeout, FSU used a quick 5-0 run to push the lead back to eight. The 30-second sequence started with Rayquan Evans, who has been playing better and better as he recovers from an offseason injury, drained a three from the top of the key. The next possession featured a fantastic pass from Wilkes down to Trent Forrest in the short corner for an easy deuce, and Syracuse immediately called timeout.
Initially it did not appear to work. Forrest caught Hughes with his hand down—the cardinal sin when defending in a zone—and buried a three from the wing to give FSU its largest lead to that point, at 55-44. However, the Orange regained their composure. After ‘Cuse made a run to cut it to 57-53 (FSU had a couple of easy looks that didn’t drop during this stretch), Leonard Hamilton was forced to call timeout with 9:27 remaining.
From there, the whistles started to come fast and furious, though neither team seemed able to fully capitalize at the charity stripe. Forrest missed a pair of FTs and Syracuse cut the lead to two. A Joseph Girard three, his fifth of the game, gave Syracuse a 62-59 lead with 5:24 left, capping a 9-0 run for the Orange over 2:48 of game time.
Florida State called a timeout and executed well immediately out of it, getting a Forrest layup to cut the lead to one. Forrest then stole the ball around half-court, but some over-dribbling cost the ‘Noles a transition opportunity and instead led to an and-1 for Syracuse. The FSU deficit was now 65-61.
A three by Walker brought the crowd to its feet and the ‘Noles within one, but Syracuse came right back with a scramble ball situation alley-oop, with a foul called on top.
A Walker four-point play with 2:36 left gave FSU a one-point lead. But a ticky-tack foul on Williams down on the other end allowed Syracuse to make two free throws and take the lead right back— and a wild sequence of action commenced.
Forrest, Hughes, and Williams all traded baskets, before a pair of Raiquan Gray free throws put FSU up 76-73. Polite lit fire to the crowd with a big-time block on the defensive end, which was saved in bounds by Gray and dished to Forrest. Unfortunately, Forrest missed a fantastic opportunity to run 30 seconds off the clock when he bounced the ball out of bounds off his knee while trying to dribble through traffic.
Hughes then attacked the basket and finished over the smaller Forrest to make it 76-75 FSU with under 30 seconds left. Williams then made an acrobatic bucket to give FSU yet another 3 point lead, however Hughes again made a layup on the other end.
With 10.3 seconds left, FSU clung to a 78-77 lead.
Gray hit Forrest on the home-run in-bounds pass and Forrest was fouled with a little more than eight seconds left. The senior leader calmly stepped to the line and made one. 79-77. The hushed crowed held their breath...swish. 80-77.
Hughes raced down the court and heaved a 25-footer that rimmed out. Williams wisely back-tapped the rebound and the final horn sounded.
Hughes led all scorers with 25 points, but he took 20 shots.
With Vassell absent, Williams arguably turned in the best game of his career, pouring in 17 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and nabbing two steals, all in 32 minutes of action. Walker, playing just 18 minutes, came up huge with 16 points, including 5-9 from three.
Florida State now takes a couple days to rest before getting a shot at revenge against the Pittsburgh Panthers.
A sullen Jim Boeheim discusses what went wrong for his team in another close loss:
Coach Hamilton discusses his team’s effort, goes in-depth on some adjustments they made to the 2-3 zone, effusively praised the character and fight of M.J. Walker, and even draws a few laughs.
M.J. Walker talks about playing through injury, his team’s confidence even while losing, what kind of legacy some of the guys before him left, and more. And check out those stitches!
Freshman sensation Pat Williams has high praise for Walker, talks about his first experience against the Syracuse zone, discusses how much he looks up to guys like Terance Mann and Dwayne Bacon, and reflects on how the team has grown since the opening night loss to Pitt.