TALLAHASSEE, FL — For one half, Florida State looked like it was on the verge of making a statement against the No. 2 team in the nation.
The Seminoles (17-7, 7-7 ACC) had the 10,657 in attendance rocking after a transition alley-oop from CJ Walker to Christ Koumadje gave the Noles a 29-18 lead with 5:54 left in the half. That capped a 9-2 run in which FSU looked to be taking it to the Cavaliers’ No. 1 ranked defense.
“We definitely feel like we can dictate the game with the way we play on offense,” Phil Cofer said following the game. “We just came out with a lot of energy and played together.”
“We were able to push the pace a little bit in the first half and create some easy opportunities for ourselves,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton added on his team’s opening half success. “The second half they took away a lot of those easy shots and made it hard for us.”
The Seminoles took a 32-22 lead into the locker room, shooting 5 of 10 from beyond the arc in the process, while also holding the Cavaliers (23-1, 12-0 ACC) to under 35 percent from the floor.
It was one of the most complete halves of basketball Hamilton’s squad has played all season.
“We moved the ball really well and executed our game plan in the first half; we attacked the pack-line defense,” Mfiondu Kabengele said. “We made them come out and defend us and played with a lot of energy.”
At the break, Florida State was shooting nearly 48 percent from the floor and only turned it over six times in the half.
In the second half, the Cavaliers proved why they’re undefeated in the ACC and one of the best teams in the entire country.
Virginia’s vaunted pack-line defense gave FSU fits all half long, while the visitors also improved their play on the offensive side of the ball.
“I knew we would be in for a dogfight tonight, I had that feeling coming in,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Just the way they had been playing recently and the way they play at home; it was going to be a really tough match-up for us.”
Virginia slowly worked its way back into the ball game, keeping the same controlled, slow pace on the offensive side of the ball to create open shots against the Florida Staet defense.
The Cavaliers shot 45 percent from the floor in the second half, including 5 of 10 from the three-point line.
“We got punched in the mouth and I didn’t know how we would respond,” Bennett said. “In the second half I thought we punched back and made key plays down the stretch.”
Virginia took its first lead since early in the game at 44-43 on a layup by Ty Jerome with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game. Florida State fought back to take a 47-44 lead on a dunk by Koumadje and an aggressive lay-in by M.J. Walker.
Walker, who finished the contest with 10 points to lead Florida State, has emerged as one of the team’s go-to playmakers during ACC play.
“He’s learning and playing well, especially on defense,” Hamilton said. “I’ve been very pleased with his progress and he’s someone with a lot of confidence.”
“He’s really coming on and even sometimes can correct me on what I can improve,” Cofer added on Walker. “He’s been helping us a lot and it seems like he’s been here a lot longer than just one year.”
The Cavaliers re-took the lead with 6:06 left on an Isaiah Wilkins jumper and would not relinquish it the rest of the way.
The Seminoles shot under 32 percent from the floor in the second half and just 1 of 10 from beyond the arc as the Cavaliers held on for the 59-55 victory.
Up next for Florida State is a road game against Notre Dame on Saturday in Notre Dame, IN.
“We can’t worry about a loss because in the ACC if you dwell on it you will lose two in a row. We just have to move on,” Cofer said.
“We have a good team and we know what we can do, we just need to focus on the next game.”
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