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‘They sped us up’: Florida State shuts down Colorado, advances to the Sweet Sixteen

Anthony Polite (left) and MJ Walker (right) defend Colorado's Evan Battey
Anthony Polite (left) and MJ Walker (right) defend Colorado's Evan Battey(USA Today Sports)
Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 9:56 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Fifth-seeded Colorado put the East region on notice when it buried 16 3s, a Pac-12 record in the NCAA Tournament, in its win over 12th-seeded Georgetown Saturday. In that game, Colorado’s senior All-American point guard McKinley Wright IV masterfully orchestrated the offense, finishing with 12 points, 13 assists and zero turnovers.

It was the latest masterpiece from Wright, who is just one of six players in NCAA history to have 1,800 career points, 600 rebounds and 600 assists.

Florida State had held Southern Conference Player of the Year Isaiah Miller to 17 points on 7-of-18 shooting on Saturday, but slowing down Wright and the Buffaloes offense would require another gear.

For the second straight game, Florida State used a dominant defensive performance to beat Colorado, 71-53, and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. It will now play top-seeded Michigan at Bankers Life Fieldhouse next Sunday at 5 p.m.

Wright scored just 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting, and the Seminoles forced him into five turnovers and only one assist.

“He’s one of best point guards on the West Coast,” said Anthony Polite, who had a career-high 22 points. “And he’s very ball-dominant, and we try to keep the ball away from him as much as possible. And it frustrated him. Pretty much stick to the game plan, and that’s what we did for the entire night.”

The Buffaloes shot just 36% (6-of-15 3s) as a team for the game and committed 19 turnovers.

The Seminoles also did a great job of taking away Colorado’s greatest strength on the offensive end. The Buffaloes were the best free-throw shooting team in the nation going into Monday night, but Florida State limited them to only 11 attempts for the game.

“This is a really, really good team, University of Colorado, and they challenged all our defensive principles, and obviously McKinley [Wright] is as good as anyone we played against in a number of years,” Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton said after the game. “He’s explosive and smart and he’s heavy. It took a tremendous effort to hold him down somewhat.

“But I was very proud of our players. I thought defensively we gave tremendous effort, and everybody who played on our team I thought made a contribution in some way that gave us a chance to get a very, very important victory.”

The Seminoles were the best 3-point shooting team in the ACC this season, but they have not shot the ball very well in their first two NCAA Tournament games. After shooting 0-for-9 from downtown in the Round of 64, they were a much better 6-of-17 on 3s against Colorado, but four of those makes came from Polite.

Polite’s career night on the offensive end will garner the most attention from Monday night, but he was equally as impressive on the defensive end. He had a game-high four steals, and Colorado almost never scored while he was on the court. In Polite’s 28 minutes, the Buffaloes scored just 0.728 points per possession. Florida State also got a stop on 90.7% of Colorado’s offensive possessions with Polite on the floor.

“Anthony is one of the better on-the-ball defenders that we’ve ever coached at Florida State,” head coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He is sound fundamentally. He has a high basketball IQ. He’s a Seminole. He plays within himself. You barely ever see him forcing a shot. He rebounds, gets deflections and steals.”

M.J. Walker has at times struggled defensively against quality guards this season, but he played maybe his best defensive game of the season and was instrumental in slowing down Wright. Walker had one steal, but more importantly, he drew two separate charges on Wright after coming over from the weak side to help out.

“…the leadership that M.J. Walker gave us tonight and talking and communicating with the players,” Hamilton said, “I thought it really made a huge difference in the game.”

Scottie Barnes was terrific defensively too, as he has been all season. He had three steals of his own and was a menace on the perimeter against Colorado’s talented group of wing players. Take a look at this play he makes on Jeriah Horne, Colorado’s second-leading scorer, late in the game.

Horne was held to only three points on 1-of-9 shooting (1-of-6 3s) in large part due to Barnes’ activity on the perimeter. Additionally, freshman Jabari Walker did not score a point after tallying a career-high 24 points and making five 3s against Georgetown Saturday.

All five Florida State defensive players consistently made things difficult for the Buffaloes. Their size and length consistently clogged driving lanes and challenged almost every pass Colorado made inside the arc.

“They sped us up,” Wright said. “They did a good job of denying and pressuring us. Their game plan was to take me out of the game and keep two on me anytime we inbounded the ball and make somebody else bring it up. We just didn’t find a way to slow down tonight, and they executed really well on the defensive end, especially in the second half.”

Florida State still has a lot to clean up offensively. It had 15 turnovers, marking its seventh straight games with at least 14 turnovers. The Seminoles, as a whole, also continue to struggle shooting the ball from the perimeter in games away from the Tucker Center.

Even with the offense not clicking yet, Florida State could still fall back on its suffocating defense for the second straight game to survive and advance. It will need to play with the same tenacity on that end of the court to have a chance against Michigan, which will be the best offensive team it has faced this season.

Monday also continued a tremendous run of recent success for Florida State. In Hamilton’s first 15 seasons with the program, FSU went to only one Sweet 16. The Seminoles have now reached the second weekend for the third straight time, and it very likely would be the fourth if not for last year’s tournament being canceled because of COVID-19.

“We start looking at what we accomplish at the end of the season, now is not the time to take any bows. You’re right. This is not the time. This is kind of where we are,” Hamilton said when asked about making a third consecutive Sweet 16. “If we are satisfied with just where we are now, then I guess we can pack our bags and go home.

“These guys are pretty focused, and one of the indications is that nobody was jumping up and down and high-fiving or getting overly excited in the locker room,” Hamilton continued. “Everyone was sitting there calm, focused, like we had been here before, and that’s the signs of a team maturing and with a purpose.”

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