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Florida State opens ACC play with road loss to third-ranked Virginia

FSU is now 1-9 on the season.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Seminoles squared off against a team ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll for the second time this week and the games looked remarkably similar. Clearly improved from early November losses against Stetson and Troy, Florida State battled UVA toe-to-toe in the first half much the same way they hung with Purdue. However, an inability to take care of the basketball or match their opponents’ second half adjustments led to the game steadily falling out of reach. While FSU is clearly battling, in the end it was a second straight game of easily covering the spread but losing the game, this time 62-57.

First half:

Both teams started off slow, with neither squad making a field goal until almost 3 minutes gone. As has been the case for a few games now, Florida State came out with better energy and effort on defense than they demonstrated in early season games against Stetson, Troy, and UCF. But as is almost always the case against Virginia under Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers were determined to establish the pace and style of the game as a grinder and establish it they did.

It was 9-6 Wahoos when freshman Tom House buried a three pointer off a feed from Caleb Mills to knot the score up with 11:38 left in the half. A couple minutes later, House swished another deep ball, this time assisted by Cam’Ron Fletcher, and FSU grabbed a 12-11 lead at the under-8 timeout.

Fletcher wasn’t just playmaking, he also was making a significant impact on the glass. A massive bugaboo for the Seminoles this season, Fletcher has shown glimpses in recent games that he’s dedicating himself to being the guy to step up for FSU on the boards. Continuing the trend, he grabbed seven in the first 12 minutes of this one, but a second foul forced him to the bench under Hamilton’s strict two-foul rule.

The next four minutes saw UVA make a 7-2 run—a big scoring burst in a game played at a snail’s pace. Florida State had several point-blank looks at the rim, but could get any of the put-backs or tip-ins to fall. Fortunately for the Seminoles, the Cavaliers were committing fouls at an uncharacteristically high rate. Coming into this game they ‘Hoos ranked 21st in the country with their FTA/FGA rate. This, combined with missed open shots by Virginia, allowed FSU to hang around and take a 19-18 lead on a Darin Green three ball.

Freshman Cameron Corhen, who appeared to struggle at first against the pack-line defense, extended the lead to 22-18 when he finished through contact for a basket and-1. UVA quickly trimmed the Seminoles lead to one with a three from the wing, but a nice defensive possession to close out the half enabled FSU to take that one point lead into the locker room.

The 21 points marked the lowest first half total for UVA this season. Neither team shot well at all, with FSU’s 25% marksmanship edging out Virginia’s 23%. But unlike previous games this season, Florida State held UVA to “only” grabbing 35% of their misses, and the ‘Noles also only turned it over 17% of their first half possessions. Funny how that works: value the basketball, keep the other team under 40% on their offensive rebound rate, and get to the free throw line, and chances are you’ll be in the game.

Second half:

UVA came out of the locker room in immediate attack mode, and the person they were targeting was Naheem McLeod. It was a quick 4-0 run on a McLeod goaltend, followed by a missed McLeod bunny, followed by a UVA offensive rebound put-back where FSU didn’t box out. After a Green turnaround jumper cut the Virginia lead to 25-24, McLeod then picked up his second flagrant foul in the last three games.

The completely unnecessary elbow by McLeod came while UVA was in the process of burying a corner three. Add in the two made FTs and it turned into a 5-point possession for the Cavaliers. Suddenly the UVA lead was 30-24 and in a low possession game it felt like a danger zone. To be candid, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that this McLeod-induced 7-0 run for UVA was the difference in the game.

Matthew Cleveland finished an and-1 to momentarily stop the bleeding, but two more easy layups for Virginia pushed it back out to 34-27 and forced Hamilton to call a timeout. After shooting 6-26 in the first 20 stanza, the Cavaliers shot 5-6 (plus the flagrant foul free throws) in the opening three and a half minutes of the second.

It only got worse over the next several minutes. In the first half, House and Green were able to stretch out the UVA defense with a few three balls, while the ‘Noles as a team took nice care of the basketball and the defense forced UVA to take difficult jumpers. None of that was true through the first 10 minutes of the second half. House didn’t even play in the first 10 minutes, FSU turned it over on nearly 30% of their possessions, and the turnovers mixed with poor rotations led to UVA executing a layup line. All this resulted in UVA scoring more points in the first 9 minutes of the second half than they did in the entire first half and a 43-31 lead for the home team.

Back to back three-balls by Jalen Warley and Green cut the lead to six, giving FSU a glimpse of life. But it was only temporary. Turnovers and empty possessions continued to pile up for FSU and by the 5:30 mark the UVA lead was right back to a dozen.

Here’s where the script started to take on a new plotline. Despite being 1-8 on the year, and despite having every reason to fold up shop and let the 19-point favorites from Charlottesville run away with it, Florida State kept fighting. Reminiscent of the type of grit that fans of the garnet and gold have become accustomed to seeing, the Seminoles wouldn’t go away quietly into the night. Cleveland and Green both made big buckets to cut into the deficit, while Caleb Mills got into the line and to the free throw line where he cashed in.

A hoop and the harm by Mills brought FSU to within three points, down 60-57. But UVA did what they needed to at the charity stripe and the Cavaliers were able to sneak out of their with a hard-fought victory.

Closing thoughts and looking forward:

The 62 points were the lowest scored by Virginia all season, in fact the first time they failed to score at least 70 and the Cavs shot just 35% from the field in the game. But the 5 point possession after McLeod’s flagrant foul and the spate of careless turnovers early in the second half for FSU was too much to overcome.

For FSU there were some positives to take away for the second straight game. We’ve been urging Cleveland to do a better job of filling up the entire box score and he did exactly that this game. The sophomore finished with a double-double of 11 points and 10 boards (7 in the second half) plus an assist, steal, and several deflections. Green continued to fill it up from three, finishing 3-5 from deep and leading FSU in scoring with 17. But even better, like Cleveland he also started to make his presence felt in other areas of the game, snagging 4 rebounds and adding 2 assists, a block, and a steal. If the Seminoles are going to start winning games, they must rebound as an entire team and this game was a nice step in that direction.

On the downside, Fletcher went down with an ugly looking leg injury with less than a minute to go. Obviously we need more details to come out, but if it’s as bad as it looked then the Seminoles might have just lost their player making arguably the most all-around contributions.

After playing 5 games in the last 10 days, Florida State now gets a week off before traveling to Louisville. We will have to see what the news on Fletcher is, but with the Cardinals 0-7 on the season it appears like a chance for the ‘Noles to potentially turn recent improvements into a notch in the win column.