The weather in Tallahassee was cold, but the shooting in the Tucker Center remained hot. Both teams made over 40% of their threes, but the Florida State Seminoles pulled away from the North Carolina Tar Heels thanks to frequent and accurate free throw shooting and solid defensive rebounding, winning 82-75 against the visitors from Tobacco Road.
Playing without freshman point guard Scottie Barnes (ankle), the Seminoles began the game with two sloppy possessions, turning it over on consecutive trips. FSU then started doing two things well—being aggressive to the bucket, which led to fouls, or open kick-outs, and making North Carolina—the best offensive rebounding team in the country at tip-off—one and done on the other end. These combined to give the ‘Noles a 7-4 lead at the first media timeout, with an M.J. Walker three being the difference.
FSU’s bench came in to provide some relief, but it had the opposite effect, as the early lead quickly evaporated. Multiple airballs on forced, deep threes led to easy transition opportunities for UNC, and the Tar Heels took a four point lead.
Then the Seminoles regained their composure. Tanor Ngom made it 14-12 with a nice interior move, before FSU forced a shot clock violation on the ensuing possession. The strong defense continued, as a Walker steal and lay up made it 16-14 FSU.
The ‘Noles extended the lead with some of their best basketball this season, as Walker, in particular, played inspired ball during this stretch. The senior had 14 points, 2 defensive rebounds, 2 steals, and shot 3-3 from deep in the first 14 minutes of the game. His three free throws put FSU up 30-19 with 6:32 left.
However the lead couldn’t be sustained. A series of made threes and second-chance points for UNC, combined with live-ball turnovers by the Seminoles, made it 35-32 FSU just a couple minutes later. Out of the under-4 timeout the live-ball turnovers continued for the ‘Noles, and the Heels, shooting uncharacteristically well from three, grabbed a 37-35 lead.
Four straight points by FSU gave the Seminoles the lead right back and then a possession that harkened back to the “Junkyard Dog” defense forced a shot-clock violation with less than a minute to go in the half. A nifty layup by Evans provided FSU with a 41-37 advantage at the break.
M.J. Walker leads the way w/ 14, while RaiQuan Gray has 10.#UNC shooting 39% (5-13) from 3 (only 29% on season).#TarHeels also w/ 9 second-chance PTS on 7 O-REB (#Noles started well in this area, but struggled as half continued).#FSU also gave up 12 PTS on 8 TO's. https://t.co/6WIxBRF2jr— Tomahawk Nation (@TomahawkNation) January 16, 2021
UNC opened the second half with another uncharacteristic three, but the Seminoles came right back. Walker hit Balsa Koprivica on a pretty alley-oop to give FSU a 43-40 lead, but on the way down Walker landed on Armando Bacot’s foot (which was clearly violating Walker’s landing zone). The player safety violation was not whistled, however, and Walker limped gingerly off the court.
Sardaar Calhoun subbed in for Walker and played admirably, drilling a corner three and pushing the ball in transition. Two Koprivica free throws made it 50-43 FSU, then a steal and beautiful look on the secondary break by Rayquan Evans gave Koprivica a tomahawk slam, lifting the crowd to its feet:
Throw it down, Balsa! pic.twitter.com/XdkzGSrRqv— Tomahawk Nation (@TomahawkNation) January 16, 2021
Koprivica completed his personal 6-0 run with two more from the charity stripe, and the Seminoles matched their largest lead at 54-43.
The Tar Heels countered with a mini-run (with Koprivica and RaiQuan Gray both out of the game), closing to 54-47. But the Seminoles threw a counter-punch of their own, getting back-to-back threes from Walker (shaking off the injury) and Malik Osborne to take a 60-50 lead into the under-12 timeout.
The game of runs continued with Carolina cutting the lead in half in less than a minute. Evans stopped the bleeding with a pair of free throws, but Caleb Love, who came into the game shooting 9-50 (18%) from deep, made his third three of the game to bring the Heels within four, 62-58. Love then grabbed an errant in-bounds pass and thew home an uncontested dunk, and the ‘Noles lead was quickly down to two:
FSU traded a 3 for 2 to extend the lead to 3 at the under-8. Then Walker stepped up. Grabbing a defensive board and going coast-to-coast, Walker finished an acrobatic and-1 layup. He followed that with a steal and an assist to Koprivica. Just like that Seminoles led by 10 again.
UNC wouldn’t go away, though. The Tar Heels’ 10th three of the game (their most this season) cut FSU’s lead to five, which is where things stood heading into the final media timeout. The lead was further trimmed by two free throws and an offensive rebound-tip-in. With just over two minutes to play, FSU clung to a 74-73 advantage.
Gray provided some breathing room. His strong drive and finish through contact put the ‘Noles back up three, and the freebie made it four. The point forward then snagged a critical defensive rebound on the other end and followed it up the next defensive possession by showcasing his remarkable awareness poking the ball away after flying in on help defense.
With 46.1 seconds left, the score remained 77-73 FSU. Gray grabbed another defensive board and Walker split a pair of free throws (first team miss of the game) to extend the lead to five. Another miss by UNC and that was that.
The ‘Noles committed more live-ball turnovers than surely anyone on the staff or team would prefer, but that’s not a surprise given the absence of Barnes. Evans did a nice job overall across 31 minutes, and upperclassmen Walker and Gray both carried the team at times.
Walker’s 21 led all scorers, while Gray gave an outstanding all-around performance of 19 points (career-high), 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, and a block. Koprivica played a pivotal role in holding UNC below their average on the offensive glass, finishing 1 rebound short of a double-double (10 points, 9 rebounds), while Malik Osborne added 10 off the bench.
The Seminoles now face a quick turnaround, traveling to play the long-time rival Louisville Cardinals on Monday.