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Florida State fights hard but fades down the stretch against Syracuse

A familiar plot line for the Seminoles.

Florida State came back home looking to make it two straight wins and get their conference record back to .500 against a Syracuse Orange team teetering on the NCAA Tourney bubble. And while FSU led for nearly 20 minutes of the game, ‘Cuse avoided the resume killing loss with a second half surge that’s become a troubling trend for an immature Seminoles squad this season. In the end, despite several positive signs to build off of (see the first half section and the takeaways), it was a 76-67 win for the visitors from upstate New York. The loss drops FSU to 8-17 overall, 6-8 in ACC play.


Player of the game: Chandler Jackson was the leader for the Noles tonight, making an impact on both ends every time he stepped on the court. Jackson finished the game with seven points and eight assists. Naheem McLeod, Matthew Cleveland, and Darin Green Jr. all scored in double-figures.

First half

Head coach Leonard Hamilton threw a curveball (baseball season starts soon!) to open the game by giving freshman Chandler Jackson his first start of his collegiate career, joining usual suspects Darin Green Jr., Caleb Mills, Matthew Cleveland, and Cameron Corhen on the floor for the tip. And while the youngster had an assist and a rebound in the first three minutes of action, early foul calls and sharp-shooting by Syracuse allowed the Orange to jump out to a 7-0 lead. Green Jr and Cleveland each picked one up in the first minute, meaning they had to be cautious to avoid first half foul-jail.

Hamilton looked to jump start FSU by going to his bench early and bringing in Baba Miller, Jalen Warley, and Naheem McLeod. The move worked and the ‘Noles went on an 8-2 run. After not scoring in the opening three minutes, FSU only trailed 9-8 at the 14:17 mark. Several of the buckets came as second chance points, as FSU racked up offensive rebounds against the 2-3 zone.

But basketball is a game of runs and unfortunately FSU went ice cold in the subsequent stretch. The Seminoles went just 1-8 between the 14:17 mark and the halfway point of the first half, with Mills missing four shots from beyond the arc during that time frame. And while ‘Cuse wasn’t shooting the nets off, they did enough to extend their lead out to 17-11.

Green Jr was finally able to bust the drought with a three-ball corner pocket, cutting the deficit in half, but an offensive rebound put-back by Syracuse’s Jesse Edwards pushed it right back to five.

Jackson, back in the game, took it upon himself to keep FSU in it. First the freshman drew a foul on a nice move and buried a pair at the line. Then, after smartly tipping a long defensive rebound to himself, last year’s Mr. Basketball in the state of Tennessee showed even better awareness with a sensational pass to a cutting McLeod for a rim-rocking dunk. Just like that it was back to a one-point margin, 19-18.

But Jackson wasn’t done. Receiving the ball in the left corner from Miller, the freshman whipped a perfectly placed and paced pass over the entire zone to an open Cleveland in the right corner. Cleveland didn’t hesitate and splashed in the three, giving FSU its first lead of the game, 21-19, with 7:18 left in the opening half.

For a couple minutes both teams took turns with empty possessions. And if you’re someone who’s watched your fair of FSU basketball this season, you’d have every reason to believe that the Seminoles would struggle stringing together enough strong possessions to extend the lead. However, on this night, the Seminoles found some rhythm. Specifically, Cleveland, Jackson, and McLeod found some rhythm. Cleveland anchored himself in the middle of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone and absolutely feasted. Jackson made sure the ball moved side-to-side on the perimeter, leading to easier entry passes, and when Cleveland received it he decisively either turned and shot or dished an lob to a well-placed McLeod. This resulted in three separate ally-oops to McLeod, with a Cleveland floater in the middle, and just like that it was 29-22 FSU.

Syracuse stopped the bleeding with a Joe Girard three, but FSU wouldn’t let the Orange go on an extended run. When the halftime horn sounded, Florida State took a 35-29 lead into the locker room, and it was inches away from being a 9 point lead after a perfectly executed SLOB (sideline out of bounds) play led to a Green Jr corner three that went halfway down before popping out at the buzzer.

McLeod finished the first half with 14 points (on 7-8 shooting), 6 rebounds (3 offensive), and 2 blocks. The 14 points were just one away from his career high set against Virginia Tech last season. Cleveland added 7 points, 7 boards (also 3 offensive), and 2 assists in the first 20 minutes, while Jackson was a playmaking extraordinaire, handing out 7 dimes against just 1 turnover.

Defensively, FSU benefitted from their made shots by being able to set up full-court pressure on defense. This forced Syracuse not initiate offense until 10-15 seconds had already elapsed, leading to less-than-wide open shots late in the shot clock on a number of occasions, which resulted in just 11-30 shooting from the field. Throw in the fact that FSU grabbed nearly 80% of the available defensive rebounds and it all added up to holding ‘Cuse to just .935 points per possession in the first half.

Second Half:

The second stanza opened with some back and forth basketball. Both teams finished difficult layups, both teams hit a jumper, and both teams had some shots rim out. But right before the under-16 timeout Syracuse hopped into a little full-court press and forced a few errors that led to baskets at the rim. When the media timeout came at the 15:12 mark, FSU’s lead was down to just two, at 44-42.

Out of the timeout, Girard drilled his 4th three of the game and Syracuse grabbed their first lead since mid-way through the first. It would not last for long. Cleveland made a layup off a Green Jr feed and then the duo switched roles as Cleveland set-up Green Jr for an open three from the wing on the next possession, putting FSU up 49-45. The Seminoles had chances to extend it even further after back-to-back Orange turnovers, but Green Jr had two great looks spin just out. At that point in the game the FSU sharpshooter was just 3-12 from deep, but he was probably a collective 12 inches from being something closer to 7-12.

The next few minutes were kind of start and stop for both squads. Neither team was able to establish much flow in the half-court and most points came off scramble situations. But after a Green Jr three gave FSU a 54-49 lead, ‘Cuse put together a quick 6-0 burst to regain a one point lead.

Florida State quickly took the lead back on a floater in the lane by Jackson, but the Orange surged ahead 62-56 with a 3 point play the old fashioned way followed by two jumpers in transition after missed FSU shots. With tired legs showing, Florida State was shooting just 9-25 from the field in the second half with 8:15 left, and those missed shots meant fewer opportunities to set up their defense, leading to easy looks and increased pressure by Syracuse’s defense.

FSU stayed cold, with jumper after jumper clanking off the rim. Gone was the pretty ball movement from the first half, replaced by lots of dribbling and difficult shots. The good news for FSU is that Syracuse wasn’t exactly lighting things up. So while Florida State went over 4 minutes without a point, the Orange lead only increased up to 65-56. Mills finally ended the drought with a pair of free throws, which was followed by McLeod going 1-2 on the next possession and at the under-4 timeout FSU trailed 65-59.

Unfortunately the ‘Noles couldn’t get it any closer and Syracuse closed out the game and the win.


— Chandler Jackson is a basketball player. It shouldn’t be surprising that a top 150 recruit has some sweet skills, and Jackson certainly has some. But it’s his natural feel for the game that stood out tonight. Despite being a prodigious scorer in high school (similar to Trent Forrest, he is more of a scorer than a pure shooter), the ball just doesn’t stick in his hands. This was critical against the 2-3 zone and the offense clearly flowed better when he was on the court. Defensively, like any youngster he’s still learning. But he’s got the kind of length, strength, and tenacity to be a disruptive force as he matures in the system. His development was stunted a little this season by a pre-season thumb injury, and it’s clear (and also understandable) that his conditioning still needs to improve (he played more minutes in the first half as he did in all but two previous games this season, and it showed). But Jackson’s future is mighty bright.

— After 4 straight games without a double-double, I noted last week that Matthew Cleveland was feeling the effects of being a marked man. How did the sophomore respond? By following up a double-double in a road win against hapless Louisville with another one tonight. But even more impressive was how he deftly operated in the middle of the 2-3 zone. That’s something that last year’s version simply couldn’t do as he lacked the consistent jumper and playmaking ability to make the defense pay. Tonight was a showcase in just how much Cleveland’s game has improved from year one to year two, and if he chooses to return for a third season in Tallahassee I would be anticipating a leap up into first-team All ACC conversation.

— FSU’s depth isn’t great this season thanks to injuries to several season-ending injuries, but it seems like the tired legs could have been better managed in this game. Baba Miller played just 3 second half minutes (including the final 2) after giving solid contributions in 10 first half minutes and Tom House played 0 second half minutes after 6 minutes of hustle play in the first. Even Corhen was limited to just 5 second half minutes. Meanwhile, Green Jr and Mills, both showing signs of fatigue, played 16+ minutes in the second and continued to miss jumpers. (Mills was 1-10 from the field, including 1-7 from deep, while Green Jr finished 6-18 from the field, 5-17 from three).

Up Next:

Florida State hangs out in Tallahassee for the weekend as they welcome in another former Big East school, the Pittsburgh Panthers. FSU 10-20 from deep in their first meeting with the Panthers this season, giving them a surprising road win against a potential NCAA Tournament team. The ‘Noles will look to complete the sweep on Saturday, with tip off slated for Noon.