Florida State feasts inside, stifles Pitt for road win

RaiQuan Gray scored 16 points to lead No. 16 Florida State (13-3, 9-2 ACC) past Pitt (9-9, 5-8...
RaiQuan Gray scored 16 points to lead No. 16 Florida State (13-3, 9-2 ACC) past Pitt (9-9, 5-8 ACC), 79-72.(247Noles)
Published: Feb. 21, 2021 at 7:34 AM EST
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MJ Walker needed just seven points to eclipse 1,000 points for his career. That seemed like a formality considering the fact Florida State’s leading scorer (13.9 ppg) had been held under seven points just once in 15 games all season.

But when the final horn sounded at the Petersen Evans Center Saturday afternoon, he remained the same distance from that sought-after milestone as he did when the day began.

For the first time in Florida State’s last 43 games, Walker was kept out of the box score after playing 28 minutes against Pitt. After the game, Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton revealed he was limited in practice this week and possibly a bit rusty, as a result.

“M.J. Walker didn’t have one of his better games,” Hamilton said. “He didn’t get a chance to practice this week. He was dealing with some of the light injuries that didn’t keep him out from playing but probably threw him out of rhythm a little bit.”

Even with no offensive production from its best player, No. 16 Florida State (13-3, 9-2 ACC) still went on the road and beat Pitt (9-9, 5-8 ACC), 79-72, and led for 35:27 of game time. The victory marks the first time Florida State has won at Pitt in its last five visits there.

With four more regular-season games left to play, along with a potential subsequent conference tournament, and at least one NCAA Tournament game, Walker is certainly going to reach 1,000 points eventually.

The far bigger question going into Saturday was how Florida State would respond following its best performance of the year when it scorched No. 7 Virginia’s vaunted defense for 81 points on Monday.

Not every Florida State performance is going to look as sublime as it did Monday. No matter how potent a team can be offensively, there are always going to be days where putting the ball in the basket is more difficult. Great teams, though, have multiple ways to win and multiple players it can lean on when one of them has an off night.

For that reason, Saturday was another reminder that Florida State can be among the elite teams in college basketball even when Walker doesn’t have his best stuff.

Walker had his worst offensive game of the season. No problem. The Seminoles had nine different players score Saturday with four of them scoring in double figures.

The Seminoles shot just 45% from the field. No problem. They responded by holding Pitt to just 38% from the field and 4-of-17 from 3-point range.

The Seminoles also connected on only four 3s of their own and struggled in the half court. No problem. Instead, they scored 44 points in the paint and 17 more on the fast break.

Furthermore, Hamilton still believes two of his key contributors in Anthony Polite and Balsa Koprivica have are not 100% yet after coming off of recent injuries.

“I could tell that Anthony Polite is still trying to shake the rust off of his layoff,” Hamilton said. “As well as Balsa. With all that going on, to go on the road and come away with a victory, I’m very pleased.”

Saturday was not Florida State’s prettiest game of the season, but the Seminoles keep finding ways to win, which is all that matters. With Virginia also losing at Duke Saturday, Florida State has now taken over first place in the ACC standings.

The Seminoles now completely control their own destiny and can win their second consecutive ACC regular-season title with four more wins. In just this week, they’ve shown they can win with an offensive onslaught or by locking down defensively. All Florida State has to do now is keep finding a way to come out on top, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it looks.

Here are a few other observations from Saturday’s game.

Defense creates offense

Florida State mostly struggled to shoot the ball in the half court against Pitt’s 2-3 zone defense, but one of the best ways to defeat a zone defense is to score before the zone can get set.

The way to do that is to force turnovers and missed shots that allow for quick, easier transition opportunities. Florida State dominated in this area Saturday, outscoring the Panthers by nine on the fast break.

There were several plays that stood out.

The first one was from Sardaar Calhoun with 11:16 left in the first half. Walker and RaiQuan Gray doubled Justin Champagnie on the left wing and forced him to throw a dangerous pass to Ithiel Horton at the top of the key.

Calhoun anticipated the pass perfectly and took it the other way before finishing on the other end. It was excellent all-around execution defensively to lead to an easy basket.

There was another play with about 10 minutes left in the first half where Scottie Barnes made a ridiculous block on a 3-point attempt up top by Xavier Johnson and converted it into a layup.

There was also a sequence early in the first half where Koprivica forced an airball on a 3, then ran the floor and was rewarded with an alley-oop from Polite in transition. Koprivica later had a block inside that led to a run-out where Polite made a layup and got fouled.

The box score may not show it, but the Seminoles did a very solid job defending Champagnie Saturday. The ACC’s leading scorer tallied 21 points but he needed 17 shots to get there. A talented scorer like Champagnie is always going to put up points, but Florida State frequently forced him into tough, contested shots. The number that stands out is that the Panthers scored only 99.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

Gray scored 16 points in the game for his eighth straight in double digits, but he had four turnovers and wasn’t as efficient as he has been recently. However, Florida State got stops on 70% of its defensive possessions when he was on the floor.

That number was even better with Calhoun (82.8%) and Malik Osborne (84.5%) in the game. Pitt scored just 101.5 points per 100 possessions with Calhoun on the court and 100.5 points per 100 possessions in Osborne’s minutes.

Offensive glass

Florida State’s shift in offensive philosophy against Pitt’s zone defense as the game progressed was eye-opening. Throughout much of the first half, the Seminoles settled for more jump shots, attempting nine 3s in the first 20 minutes. Their first three shots of the game were from beyond the arc.

In the second half, Florida State attempted just three shots from distance. Against a zone defense, teams often have a tendency to attempt more shots from the perimeter. Zone defenses are designed to make scoring inside more difficult and encourage teams to settle for jumpers.

However, the Seminoles were patient and ruthlessly attacked Pitt’s zone. They showed some impressive interior passing to create shots in the paint. Rather than continuing to rely on 3s that weren’t falling, Florida State instead scored 44 points in the paint.

A lot of those came via second-chance opportunities. Florida State had 12 offensive rebounds in the game with Barnes (4), Gray (3) and Osborne (2) combining for nine of them.

Barnes, in particular, overwhelmed Pitt on the offensive glass with his combination of length and quick second jump. The 6-foot-9 freshman collected 14.3% of Florida State’s missed shots by himself when he was on the court.

Of the eight Pitt players that got minutes Saturday, Terrell Brown is the only one taller than 6-foot-8, so Florida State had an advantage on the glass with its superior size.

The Seminoles will face bigger teams that they won’t be able to overwhelm as much with their size and length down the road. Winning games by making just four 3s is not sustainable, but against a smaller Pitt team, pounding the ball inside and feasting on the offensive glass was a formula that worked.

Depth prevails again

As he has done all year, Hamilton used 10 different players against the Panthers Saturday. Nine of those 10 played at least 14 minutes, while only six Pitt players were on the court for more than 12 minutes. Four of those six played at least 32 minutes.

Pitt did a nice job hanging around all game, but as Florida State continued to apply defensive pressure and crash the offensive glass, the Panthers started to wear down.

In the end, Florida State’s bench outscored Pitt’s 33-9.

“Our bench was phenomenal…Getting 33 points off our bench really represents who we are as a basketball team,” Hamilton said. “We continue to keep winning games by committee.”

That’s been a theme all year for the Seminoles. Even when one of their best players like Walker, Gray or Barnes has a tough game offensively, Florida State has a legitimate 10-deep rotation that can pick up the slack.

With that many players who can be major contributors on any given night, Hamilton can keep his guys fresher throughout an entire game. That will be advantageous in games that are more physical. The depth also allows the Seminoles to maintain heavy defensive pressure for longer stretches, as was the case Saturday.

It’s a recipe that very few teams in college basketball can duplicate.

Up Next

Florida State will play at Miami Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. The Seminoles defeated the Hurricanes, 81-59, back on Jan. 27.

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