Florida State (12-7, 6-2) traveled to upstate New York with a chance to make up for their home loss to Clemson with a quad one win against Syracuse. Mission accomplished. Florida State got a career high 27 points from Jamir Watkins and turned a game that was touch-and-go for the first 30 minutes into an 85-69 victory.
The biggest defensive concern for Florida State coming into the game had to be containing Judah Mintz. The sophomore guard isn’t a huge perimeter threat, but he’s a downhill player who gets to the rim—and the free throw line—at an elite rate. And true to form, FSU seemingly had no answer for Mintz off-the-dribble early in the game. He repeatedly found the big-man switch he wanted, before blowing by the defender for an easy trip to the tin. This resulted in Mintz scoring 4 of Cuse’s first 6 points and 6 of their first 11, all either on layups or at the charity stripe after being fouled on a layup attempt.
At the other end, it was Jamir Watkins and Darin Green, Jr. doing the early damage for the ‘Noles. Watkins opened up the game aggressively attacking the basket, and he was able to get fouled twice and also make two buckets, one of them resulting in an and-1. Green, Jr. was making in impact as a scorer and a playmaker, setting up Cameron Corhen for an easy basket with a pretty interior pass and then hitting a very deep three from the wing off a dish from Primo Spears. The bomb from outside gave FSU a 12-11 lead with 12:48 remaining in the first half.
The Seminoles extended the lead on the next possession on a soft floater in the lane by Chandler Jackson. At that point, the pace picked up and the teams traded baskets and turnovers for several minutes of back-and-forth action. Watkins ended that see-saw action with a three from the wing, just his second made perimeter shot in the last 6 games, and then lobbed an alley-oop to Jaylan Gainey on the next trip down. The jam pushed FSU’s lead out to 21-15 at the under-8 timeout. However, similar to the Clemson game, in that while the ‘Noles had a two possession margin, there were several missed opportunities in transition that would’ve enabled an 8 or even 10 point lead.
It didn’t take long to see the missed opportunities come back to bite Florida State. Spears hit a mid-range jumper off the bounce to put FSU up 23-16, the Orange went on a 10-3 run to tie the game at 26 at the under-4 media break. Much of this run was a result of Syracuse getting out in transition and either beating FSU defenders down the court for a layup, or racking up fouls and free throws. Indeed, the Seminoles could’ve easily found themselves trailing at this point if Mintz wasn’t 2-5 from the stripe. As it was, it felt like a bit of a danger zone for Florida State as ‘Cuse was shooting two on each foul the rest of the half and were in a tie game despite only shooting 1-9 from deep.
The final stretch of the first half seemed closer to an old Big East game than a modern pace-and-space game. Syracuse eschewed the three-point line completely, instead getting the ball into the paint every possession, mostly off the bounce. This resulted in a ton of fouls, a few buckets, and one spectacular block by Baba Miller that was terribly ruled a goaltend. On offense, Watkins continued to carry FSU as the only guy capable of getting inside the teeth of the defense. The only other Seminole to score in the final three minutes was Miller on a corner three off a nice drive and dish from Jalen Warley. That shot with 28 seconds left gave the ‘Noles a 35-34 lead, but two more freebies for Syracuse with 2.8 seconds remaining gave the Orange a one-point lead going into half.
The story for Florida State was a familiar scene of late. On the positive side, FSU forced ‘Cuse into turnovers on 23% of their possessions. However, many of those were dead-ball miscues and when FSU did manage to get out in transition they couldn’t capitalize, leading to the ‘Noles scoring just two points off the eight Syracuse turnovers.
The biggest issue for FSU was also a familiar one: fouling. It felt like a minor miracle that Florida State was only down one, as the Orange shot 19 first half free throws (to FSU’s 8), but remarkably only made 11. Mintz, an 80% free throw shooter on the season, was just 4-9.
In an eerily similar situation to the previous game against Clemson, FSU came out looking sloppy, forcing Leonard Hamilton to call a timeout less than two minutes into the half with FSU trailing 40-37. Unfortunately, the intended effect didn’t happen. Much like the Clemson game, FSU was simply unable to defend without being whistled for a foul, which means the ‘Noles are unable to get easy buckets before the defense is set. And on the one occasion they did force a turnover, it was given right back on a throwaway.
With just under 16 minutes left in the game, Syracuse led 46-39 despite 1-10 shooting from three and 9 turnovers because the Orange had attempted 23 free throws—essentially one per minute.
Finally, the ‘Noles showed some life. Keeping with the theme of the game, it was Watkins doing much of the work. The transfer from VCU gave a beautiful feed to De’Ante Green for a layup and the foul, forced a turnover at half-court, and then made two free throws after grabbing an offensive rebound and drawing the foul. Spears capped the run with a floater in the lane and just like that the game was tied again at 48.
Now, I must admit—at this point in the game it was becoming borderline unwatchable if you weren’t a fan of either team. Not that there weren’t highlight reel plays. Spears hit a high arcing three from the corner off a kick out from Warley and both teams were able to rock the rim on jams. But the frequency of whistles prevented the game from developing any rhythm or pace. Finally, fans were treated to a multi-possession stretch with no fouls, and it was the Seminoles taking advantage. Corhen grabbed a long defensive rebound, dished to Spears, and then got it back for a transition layup, and then another missed Syracuse shot led to another Spears lob, this time finished at the rim by Watkins for a 57-54 lead.
It was more back-and-forth, start-and-stop basketball for a few minutes before Green, Jr. jumped a pass near mid-court for a grab-and-go layup. That bucket gave FSU a 63-58 lead with 8 minutes and change remaining. The ‘Noles would then double that lead to 10 by the 5:29 mark after back-to-back baskets by Green, Jr. and Miller. The former was particularly nice, as Warley got inside the zone defense to draw attention and then kicked to FSU’s sharpshooter in the corner.
From there the Seminoles stomped on the throat. A tip-in by Warley made it a 14 point game and then a Spears layup after a Watkins offensive rebound made it a 16 point lead. The margin grew as high as 20 at 85-65, before ‘Cuse added a few garbage-time buckets.
Box Score and Takeaways:
- Jamir Watkins was a beast. The redshirt junior came into the game as FSU’s leading scorer, rebounder, theft, and set-up man, and he had it all on display in the dome. This was the version of Watkins that has seen him pop up on the radar of NBA scouts. A double-double with 27 and 11, 2 assists, and 3 steals, all in just 29 minutes of play. Yes, he turned it over 5 times, but someone had to be aggressive against the ‘Cuse defense and that task fell to Watkins time and again.
- Judah Mintz put on a clinic on how to beat FSU’s defense off the bounce, scoring 28 points, including 10-15 from the free throw line. But fortunately the Orange didn’t have much else to make Florida State pay, finishing just 1-14 from deep, with only one other player in double digits. This will not be the case on Saturday, as UNC also features an elite scorer off the dribble in RJ Davis, but they also have a couple perimeter shooters and super senior Armando Bacot underneath.
- Jalen Warley scored just 4 points, but he still had his fingerprints all over the game the way FSU needs in order to have success. 4 assists (several at key moments in the second half), a couple boards, a steal, and just generally playing 82 feet of harassing defense. He’s a guy that does a lot that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet and this was a solid effort from him.
- Primo Spears had probably his best game as a Seminole. The Georgetown transfer looked right at home in this Big East style of game, finishing with 11 points on 5-8 shooting, 6 dimes, and just 1 turnover.
- This game will make the NET happy. Winning by 16 points on the road against a quality opponent, this is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Seminoles’ resume.
Florida State returns home to Tallahassee to do battle with the best team in the league, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Winners of 9 straight games, UNC comes to town ranked 6th in Ken Pom, 7th in Torvik’s rankings, and 3rd in the AP Poll. This is the type of signature victory FSU needs if they want to have any chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.