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Balsa Koprivica leads Florida State past UNC in ACC Tournament semifinals

Balsa Koprivica had 17 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in FSU's win over UNC
Balsa Koprivica had 17 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in FSU's win over UNC(WCTV)
Published: Mar. 13, 2021 at 7:53 AM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - For a while on Friday night, Florida State appeared to be heading for another second-half collapse against North Carolina.

When Malik Osborne hit a step-back 3 at the buzzer to end the first half, the Seminoles appeared to be well on their way to playing for the ACC Championship game. Florida State led 35-24. It had held UNC to just 8-of-30 (27%) from the field. It had forced 10 UNC turnovers that were converted into 12 points. It had scored 22 points in the paint, and, perhaps most importantly, it had held the best offensive rebounding team in the country to just eight second-chance points.

There was just one caveat. Only two weeks earlier in Chapel Hill, Florida State led the Tar Heels 41-29 at halftime and appeared to be in complete control of that game too. Then UNC outscored the Seminoles 49-29 in the second half to win 78-70.

The first 10 minutes of the second half Friday looked like a carbon copy of what transpired in Chapel Hill just two weeks before.

Florida State led by double digits at the half. Then North Carolina began to pound the ball inside to their bigs, they crashed the offensive glass, and their guards began to hit some perimeter shots after making just 1-of-7 3s in the first half.

By the time 11:32 registered on the game clock, Florida State was calling its second timeout of the half and North Carolina had roared back to take a 48-46 lead.

But unlike two weeks ago, Florida State minimized the damage and eventually closed out a 69-66 win behind some excellent defense down the stretch.

The Seminoles forced North Carolina to miss seven of its final eight shots.

“Not going to lie, it was a tremendously challenging team for us,” FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton said. “There was a part there in the second half where I thought they defended a little better, and we got some consecutive stops and we were able to move the ball and get some timely scores.”

Balsa Koprivica, who struggled mightily against North Carolina’s size in the two teams’ last matchup, was the best player on the court Friday. He finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds for his second career double-double, along with four blocks.

Scottie Barnes added 11 points, four assists and two steals in 25 minutes.

Florida State still looks far from being ready to make a run at a national title in the NCAA Tournament. In three of its last four games, excluding a blowout win at home over last-place Boston College, FSU has not looked like the dominant team that mostly cruised through the final two months of the regular season.

North Carolina was also playing its third game in three days. Florida State, in contrast, was well-rested after its Thursday matchup against Duke was canceled due to a positive COVID-19 test in the Blue Devils’ program.

All that matters in March though is surviving and advancing. It doesn’t have to be pretty as long as that happens. Now, Florida State will take on fourth-seeded Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Saturday night.

Obviously, winning the ACC Tournament would be another tremendous accomplishment for a Florida State team that has become one of the best non-traditional blue blood programs in the nation over the last couple of seasons. More importantly, though, Saturday’s game will have tremendous NCAA Tournament seeding implications.

As of right now, Florida State is a projected four-seed, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. If the Seminoles beat Georgia Tech, they’ll be far more likely to be a top-three seed in the tournament.

Why is that so important? Because that will put the Seminoles on the opposite side of the bracket as the one-seed and delay a potential matchup with Gonzaga, Baylor or the Big Ten champ until the Elite 8. That’s assuming Florida State manages to advance that far, which seems far from a guarantee.

Here are a few observations from Friday’s win.

Balsa Koprivica dominant

Koprivica was completely overwhelmed by UNC’s big man quartet of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler the last time these teams met.

The sophomore seven-footer was beaten down the court a few times, and Kessler, in particular, often pushed him around on the low block.

On Friday though, Koprivica was the aggressor and played like he had something to prove.

Koprivica ran the floor hard, dominated the boards, had some strong finishes at the rim and did a phenomenal job anchoring the Florida State defense in the half court.

In FSU’s last matchup against North Carolina, Koprivica had a defensive rebound rate of just 4.6%. It was clear he came into Friday night with a focus to get better position underneath the basket and drive the UNC bigs out of the paint when shots went up. His defensive rebound rate on Friday went all the way up to 20%.

Koprivica also had four offensive rebounds and corralled a game-high 18.4% of his team’s missed shots when he was on the court. His quick second jump was on display throughout the evening.

There were several times when a UNC big rotated over to help out a driving Florida State player from the perimeter, and Koprivica put himself in the perfect position to grab the miss and get an easy basket.

Koprivica made a couple of great passes from the post out of double teams for assists too.

Among all Florida State players who recorded double-digit minutes, Koprivica led the team in both offensive rating (116.8 points per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (93.3 points per 100 possessions, tied with Anthony Polite).

“Balsa had a hell of a game. He really played hard. He just did a lot of things. He ran in transition, allowed them to break them down defensively, helped us get our transition points. He rebounded very well. He boxed out,” Barnes said. “I think he really took on that challenge, and he fought all game, all night.”

He even made several plays that won’t show up in the stat sheet like rotating over from the weak side to challenge a UNC shot or setting a screen to create an FSU shot. Here’s an example.

Barnes gets the highlight on this play, but he’s only able to get past his defender and into the paint because of a good screen Koprivica set up top. (It also helped that no UNC defenders rotated from the weak side to challenge Barnes at the basket.)

If there’s one defining stretch of the game that illustrates how valuable Koprivica was Friday night, look no further than the last 14 minutes of the game. With 13:22 left in the second half, Koprivica was subbed out with Florida State leading 46-40. In the 4:16 he was out of the game, North Carolina went on a 13-2 run to take a 53-48 lead.

He was not taken off the court again after that other than with 16 seconds in the game for an offense-defense substitution. Florida State outscored UNC 21-13 the rest of the game. The Seminoles were an estimated 9.1 points better with him on the floor Friday night, per Dean Oliver’s formula for points produced minus points allowed.

On a night when Florida State needed Koprivica to hold up better against the UNC size than he did two weeks ago, he was the best player on the floor.

Barnes shines on both ends

Barnes being left off the ACC All-Defensive Team was one of the biggest surprises of all the ACC awards. In just about every game Florida State has played this season, he’s been the most impactful defensive player on the floor. That title for Friday night probably belongs to Koprivica, but Barnes was still excellent on that end.

He finished with a stingy defensive rating of 95 points per 100 possessions, which trailed only Koprivica and Polite (93.3).

His defense on Caleb Love with just over a minute to in the game when Florida State was up by one was phenomenal. Love drove right from the top of the key, but Barnes cut off his driving lane nicely. When Love shot faked, Barnes did an excellent job of staying on his feet and going straight up, which forced Love to shoot an extremely difficult jumper that missed badly.

Offensively, Barnes wasn’t quite as effective as a distributor as he normally is and made a couple of rare errant passes, but he still assisted on 36% of Florida State’s offensive possessions when he was in the game.

There were also two jaw-dropping plays in transition that he made during the first half. Here’s the first one where he ran the floor hard and dunked over Kessler.

Barnes did a great job here positioning himself along the sideline to give RaiQuan Gray a better angle to give him the ball and eventually finish the play

Just three minutes later, after he collected a steal on RJ Davis, he took a few dribbles to the other end of the court and made a strong finish through Garrison Brooks, plus the foul.

It was just another fantastic two-way game from the supremely talented freshman.

What’s wrong with MJ Walker?

Walker has had a very good senior season and his Second-Team All-ACC selection was well deserved. A case could be made that he should have made First-Team All-ACC.

Four of his last five games have been brutal though. His previous game against Notre Dame was arguably his worst all-around performance of the season.

Walker had another poor showing defensively Friday. In the 28 minutes he played, Florida State recorded a stop on just 10.4% of its possessions. That was the worst stop rate among all players who logged double-digit minutes.

Offensively, he’s mostly been very inefficient over the last five games with the exception of an 18-point outburst against Boston College on March 3. He had nine points Friday but shot just 3-of-8 from the field and posted a ghastly offensive rating of 61.5 points per 100 possessions.

Over the last five games, Walker has shot just 16-of-48 (33%) from the field. That includes the game against Boston College where he shot 6-of-10 from the field, including 6-of-9 on 3s.

The most concerning thing about Walker’s play Friday night through was the number of silly mistakes he made, particularly in the second half. He committed four of FSU’s eight turnovers in the final 20 minutes of action and three of them were just careless plays.

The first was a pass out to the left wing that sailed out of bounds and was nowhere near his intended target. Hamilton had a rather perplexed look on his face afterward, which is not a reaction that should not be elicited by a senior guard.

There was another play where he threw a lazy pass in the backcourt that was picked off by Leaky Black. That turned into a 3 by Love to cut the FSU lead to just four.

Finally, with Florida State up by one with just under a minute left, he committed an offensive foul on a drive to his right. If not for Barnes’ outstanding defense on Love the next possession, that play might have been costly.

Walker just made a lot of silly mistakes that should not happen from a player as experienced as him. Florida State really needs him to turn things around quickly. The Seminoles will not make a run in the NCAA Tournament if Walker isn’t on his game.

Too many critical mistakes down the stretch

Walker isn’t the only culprit for nearly allowing North Carolina to steal a win.

There were at least three times in the second half where Florida State inexplicably lost track of UNC’s best shooter in Kerwin Walton and allowed him to get off a wide-open catch-and-shoot 3. It’s one thing to allow that to happen against a team with several threats from the perimeter, but Walton has been UNC’s only consistent 3-point threat all season.

There was also a completely unnecessary foul by Sardaar Calhoun on a 3-point shot from Davis, which gave UNC a two-point lead after he made all three free throws.

Polite also missed the front end of a one-and-one just moments later. Polite had a very good defensive game though, and he redeemed himself by knocking down a huge corner 3 to put Florida State back up by one with two minutes left.

However, those are all critical mistakes that will end a season in the NCAA Tournament. In addition, Florida State’s perimeter shooting away from the Tucker Center continues to be a problem.

The Seminoles made just five 3s in the game, and three of them came from Osborne, who had only made 10 3s on the season before Friday.

In the eight games the Seminoles have played outside of their home gym his season, they’ve made just 50-of-160 (31.2%) 3s.

Florida State was good enough defensively down the stretch to win, but the bottom line is that the Seminoles still have a lot to prove. They still need to play much better to have a chance to legitimately compete for a national title later this month.

“I think we’re growing up,” Hamilton said. “This team has the ability to bounce back, and I like where we are. It’s not because of anything other than that’s part of the growth, the maturity that it takes to continue to keep getting your program better and better.”

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