CHARLOTTE – When Virginia opened ACC play with Florida State on the first Saturday in January, the Cavaliers took control early and led for the final 32 minutes of a 13-point win. The Seminoles returned the favor on Friday night in the ACC Tournament Semifinals.
FSU took control early in the first half and led for all but 56 seconds of the final 35 minutes of a 69-59 victory. That ended UVA’s hopes of back-to-back tournament titles and sent the Seminoles to the Championship Game to take on Duke.
“It was obvious that our kids were really locked in for this game and a lot of it is because we have such a tremendous amount of respect for the job that Tony [Bennett] does and the legacy that he’s built there at Virginia,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I thought our guys were locked in and trying not to give them at least the easiest opportunities, at least make them work for the shots that they had and our guys, it was difficult, we played a lot of guys, they expended a lot of energy, and that’s as a result of the quality of the team, the system and the job that they have done over the years. … I think that the combination of the respect we had for them and our guys being locked in executing offensively and defensively gave us an opportunity to win a very important game for us.”
The Seminoles first started to extend an advantage early in the first half when David Nichols hit a jumper at the 14:56 mark for a 9-8 lead. That was Nichols’ only field goal of the first half, but it served as a bit of foreshadowing for later in the night. The first half lead grew to as many as 10 points two different times and State led for the next 20 minutes, but UVA whittled away at the deficit on both sides of intermission.
By the time De’Andre Hunter scored on a Kyle Guy assist at the 14:26 mark of the second half, the Hoos had made it all the way back to the lead at 43-42. Nichols answered with a bucket and Kihei Clark hit a jumper next to see-saw the lead between the two teams over the next minute. But the Noles responded this time with a 13-1 surge that put the Cavaliers in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.
“I think when you get into this kind of setting, the possessions matter,” Bennett said. “So you can’t have empty possessions or some of the things that, I don’t know if you want to say self-inflicted wounds, but if we miss a block or we miss a coverage we’re not going to be perfect. But I think that we have just been, these guys have been amazing all year and we have always found ways to pull it out. And sometimes that’s a good reminder when you can’t pull it out, we got to tighten the screws in other areas and be ready. But hat’s off to Florida State. That’s a well-coached, good team. Nichols was so good tonight, even at times when we did guard him he just made some shots in our face and their length is noticeable.”
Indeed, Nichols’ fingerprints were all over that decisive run. With the score at 49-48, he started the 13-1 surge with 6 straight points. That started with a pull-up jumper late in the shot clock and was followed by a layup and a dribble move into the post area for another basket. Later in the run, Nichols delivered a spin-away jumper too.
Nichols finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting to lead a balanced effort by FSU. Phil Cofer added 11 points, while Trent Forrest and Mfiondu Kabengele had 10 each. The Seminoles finished the game at 56.5% shooting overall (26-46) and 37.5% from 3-point range (6-16). State won the rebounding battle 35-20, the largest margin by a Virginia opponent this season.
“We’re just playing connected basketball, we’re doing a good job of driving the ball downhill,” Nichols said. Just getting the defense to really spread out and open up lanes to attack. RaiQuan [Gray] did a tremendous job doing that and then just getting off the ball early and lanes were just opening up and I was the fortunate one to get the ball when the lanes opened up and I just drove to the basket.”
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, couldn’t find any rhythm of their own. They shot just 41.5% overall (22-53) and a rough 20.8% from 3-point range (5-24). Hunter led the scoring effort with 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting, but he missed all 4 3-point attempts. Guy added 11 points and 4 assists. Ty Jerome finished with 10 points, but struggled shooting for the second straight game. After making just 1 of 11 attempts against NC State, he hit just 4 of 13 against Florida State.
The Seminoles made it tough on that scoring trio with fullcourt pressure, steady work through screens, and by contesting any shots toward the rim. Jack Salt and Kihei Clark combined for 17 points to offset that strategy a bit, but by and large, FSU disrupted things with a physical and consistent effort defensively. Guy got just two shot attempts in he second half, while Hunter had five.
UVA managed just 8 assists, which matched the season low that came against Dayton and Duke. All of that together is an indicator that Florida State pushed the Hoos out of their comfort zone offensively.
“You could see how they were really contesting Kyle and Ty and making shots hard,” Bennett said. “De’Andre got some stuff. But balanced scoring, which is what they had against us, is always very tough. And we weren’t, I didn’t think we were as productive or as efficient, of course, offensively. But we can talk offense all you want, sometimes that’s going to come and go, you got to be able to stand in there and get the stops and if you can’t do that, it’s hard to be successful.”