The Virginia men’s basketball team knocked off No. 5 Florida State in a 61-56 thriller on Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. This victory avenged the Cavaliers’ tough four-point defeat they suffered to the Seminoles in Tallahassee less than two weeks prior. Additionally, it snapped FSU’s 10-game winning streak and provided the Hoos with their first win against a top five opponent while unranked since they defeated No. 3 Duke at home back in 2013.
Much like the previous game between these two teams, Florida State jumped on the Cavaliers from the opening tip to take an early lead in this one. The Seminoles secured an 11-3 advantage as they made their first three field goal attempts from beyond the arc. They would eventually cool off from 3-point land, however, as they shot 4-17 following the hot start.
The early eight-point lead for the Noles proved to be the largest lead of the game for either team as the matchup became a back and forth affair with neither side ever being able to truly distance themselves from their opponent.
“We had a hard time getting any separation at all and we did get a few points ahead, but I thought they did a great job of staying focused and moving the ball and attacking off the dribble,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton.
The Seminoles still led 14-8 as they capitalized early off of a slow shooting start for the Cavaliers. The hosts shot 30 percent in the first 10 minutes of action. The offensive woes for the Hoos did not stop at just shooting as they struggled to take care of the ball as well, turning it over seven times in this same time frame.
Turnovers have plagued this Virginia team throughout the season and the Wahoos came into Tuesday night’s contest having reached the double-digit mark in this category in their last seven games. Part of the reason that the Cavaliers found themselves down 28-27 at halftime was the fact that they extended this streak to eight games in the first half alone.
The Hoos finished the night with 17 turnovers, a number that was not too concerning to senior forward Braxton Key.
“We’ve dropped a lot of late games, and today we knew we were going to turn the ball over against a team like that, so we were just trying to limit the turnovers to as minimal as possible,” Key said. “I think 17 (turnovers) was the number tonight with 11 assists, and against a team like that, that’s a win. Still, we could be a little more sound, but we were forcing a lot of guys to make tougher shots.”
Key’s point stands up to the season stats. The Hoos did better than other teams have done this season against this swarming and lengthy Seminole defense. Prior to Tuesday night, FSU was fifth in the nation in turnovers forced per game with opponents averaging 18.5 a game.
Despite the turnovers and slow start shooting, UVA pushed itself into the lead shortly after intermission. Following an 8-0 run, thanks in part to back to back 3-pointers by senior forward Mamadi Diakite, the Hoos took a 35-30 lead early in the second half. This five-point differential ended up as the largest of the half until Key made two free throws with 0.1 seconds left to ice the game.
Much like the first half, the second half was filled with mini runs by one team followed by responses from the opponent. The key difference for Virginia, though, was shooting. In the second half, the Cavaliers shot just under 50% from the field at 47.4%, while the Seminoles shot only 36.7%.
FSU’s Devin Vassell was the only visitor in double figures with 17 points to go with 6 rebounds. RaiQuan Gray added 8 points as well. That duo combined for 10-of-19 shooting too, but many of the other Seminoles struggled to make shots. Starters M.J. Walker, Malik Osborne, and Trent Forrest, for example, combined for 6-21 shooting.
Diakite led the Hoos with 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting. He added 9 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 blocked shot too. Kihei Clark scored 15 points with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 turnovers, an improvement from the first meeting. Key chipped in 13 points and 9 rebounds, while Tomas Woldetensae had 8 points and Jay Huff had 6 rebounds. With several guys notching solid rebounding numbers, UVA won that category 36-23.
“I keep telling the young guys, the old guys know it already, to shoot the ball whenever they get it,” Diakite said. “I remember at practice, Kihei telling me that I am like a conscious to the guys. I was trying to get to my sweet spot which is posting up down low on the block, but they were doubling me. So I was just going to take what the defense was giving me. That is what Kihei did. That’s what Braxton did.”
“They were clever with the ball, took us off the dribble and those three threes that the big fella [Mamadi Diakite] hit from the corner were huge plays for them,” Hamilton said. “It all made a big, big difference. We lost to a team that played better than us tonight. They earned the victory and they deserved it.”
While team shooting definitely played an integral role in determining the winner of the game, there is also one play in the second half that sticks out as being a crucial moment. With just more than seven minutes to play in the game and the Seminoles leading 47-44 after a Vassell 3-pointer moments earlier, Virginia sophomore guard Kihei Clark drove to the hoop, attempted a layup, and was grabbed around the neck or shoulder area while in the air by FSU freshman center Balsa Koprivica.
Upon review, the officials declared it a flagrant two grade foul so Koprivica was ejected. Clark was given two free throws and the Hoos maintained possession. He made both shots.
“It was a big play and a momentum swing,” said Cavalier coach Tony Bennett.
Both teams continued to trade baskets and defensive stops with each other from that point. Neither team gained much separation down the stretch. A Huff basket cut the FSU lead to one point in the final two minutes before Clark made a contested circus layup with a minute to go in the game to give his team a 57-56 advantage. Following Diakite making two free throws with 14 seconds left to make it a three-point game, the Seminoles missed two three pointers on the other end and Key provided the final margin with a couple of late free throws.
The Seminoles were held scoreless the final 2:20 of the game, while the Cavaliers scored on seven of their final eight possessions. In a game filled with a plethora of ties and lead changes, Virginia never shied away from the moment despite so many close losses during this January stretch.
“We’ve had two really good games against [FSU]. We’ve been in all the games we’ve lost. We’ve been right there,” Bennett said. ”… We didn’t flinch. We weren’t perfect, but enough big plays were made. You’ve got to do that down the stretch. You can’t win those games unless you take the moment and make a tough play.”
Hamilton was quite positive and complimentary of the performance by the Hoos and their overall direction.
“I thought they did a great job sticking to the game plan for the whole 40 minutes. … They seem to be finding the rhythm they have to play to be successful, and you have to give them a lot of credit,” said Hamilton.
Obviously, when you upset a top-five team, there is much to be excited about. For example, it bolsters your tournament resumé tremendously for when March rolls around. For Bennett on the other hand, there is always a deeper metaphor to be used when looking at the game.
“It was a good step, but there’s miles to go before we sleep,” Bennett said.