LOS ANGELES, Calif. (seminoles.com) — As Braian Angola came off the court, he was seething.
Florida State had watched a two-point deficit turn into double digits following a Xavier three-pointer with 12:50 to go in their battle for a Sweet 16 spot. The Seminoles called timeout. They needed to regroup and get on the same page. Angola instead chose to call out his teammate PJ Savoy for his transition defense that led to the preceding shot. The two got into an animated discussion.
“It was just two competitors going at each other. That’s what we do,” Angola told reporters after the game.
“We were heated at that moment,” Savoy said Tuesday. “We’re competitors. We want to win. We all have that same mindset of how bad we want to win. When everybody’s got the same mindset, our energy tends to go up and our level of play goes up, so it’s a good thing.”
What might seem unhealthy to outsiders — an on-court argument or yelling at a teammate — has become the exact opposite for Florida State and spurs the players to perform better. Telling someone they are doing wrong is something encouraged and actively taught.
“We work hard at calling each other out. We have exercises where we work at calling each other out,” head coach Leonard Hamilton said. “That’s part of how you build a culture of being honest and open with anybody. That’s the way we respond to each other.
“Sometimes it’s challenging to take a call out, but we work at that. Sometimes it’s not always easy for guys to respond appropriately and we’re not perfect. Sometimes the truth hurts, but I must say we always at the end of the day respond pretty much the way we’re supposed to.”
The players don’t let what happens on the court affect their relationships. Savoy said this roster is unlike any team of which he’s every been a part of. Everyone references the team as a family. The players call each other brothers. They never seem to tire of being around each other away from the court, but on the court, they want to win. Savoy credits the coaching staff for finding the right group of guys, who can compartmentalize the on-the-court/off-the-court juxtaposition, and “really getting to the soul of everybody’s personality” to find personalities that really click together.
Angola called Savoy out, he said, in an effort to bring the team together. He had forgotten about the situation by the time he took the court again. Savoy was mad initially. Hamilton had to pull him into the huddle. But the coach soon assuaged the situation and put both players back in the game.
“Coach Ham brought us together and was like, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do to win,’ Savoy said. “We both believe in our system, so we bought in and pulled off the game.”
Florida State traded baskets with the top-seeded Musketeers until putting together one of the finest runs in FSU postseason history, finishing the game on an 18-4 run over the final 5 1/2 minutes. It tied the score at 68-68. Xavier reclaimed the lead with less than two minutes remaining before Savoy came up with the play of the night, making a play on both ends of the court.
It was Savoy’s defense Angola had chastised early. It was Savoy’s defense that helped set up the go-ahead basket. As Xavier star Trevon Bluiett drove into the lane, Savoy reached in and raked down on the ball, popping it free and into Trent Forrest’s hands. Forrest took the ball up the middle of the court.
Terance Mann was pointing Forrest to Savoy. Savoy fanned wide and caught a pass. He hesitated. He could have pulled the ball out and ran an offensive set. Angola was hoping Savoy would shoot it. His teammates have the ultimate confidence in him, so when Savoy saw the defender step back, he rose up for the three-pointer. It swished through the net to give the No. 9-seed Seminoles a lead they did not relent.
“Every time I step on the court, my teammates emphasize to find me,” Savoy said. “All I’ve got to do is just be ready. Just knowing they have that much confidence in me allows myself to have even more confidence in my jump shot.”
Savoy hit a trio of three-pointers and scored 11 points against Xavier. It was the third straight game he had scored in double-digits — a first in his Florida State career. He averaged nearly 20 minutes in the three games. Savoy had come a long way from the first half of the season.
In the first 17 games, he didn’t play 20 minutes once. He couldn’t get in the regular rotation. He played more than 10 minutes only six times. He averaged fewer than five points per contest and in a game against Syracuse in January, Savoy went down with a right knee injury. He missed the next seven games but gained a new appreciation.
“The injury made me step back and realize what coach was wanting on both sides of the floor. In that sense, it helped me elevate our team energy wise and just helping out on the whole.”
When Savoy returned, his defensive effort earned him more minutes. He played 15, 16 and then 30 minutes in the first three games. He averaged more than 12 points, including a season-high 18 in a win over Pitt. Even when his shot isn’t falling, Savoy has played within the system and tried to make an impact on the defensive end.
“I feel like sometimes they need me to go in there and shoot and make some shots and then other times, they just need me to go in there and just play fundamentally sound on defense.”
Since the postseason began, he has been one of the Seminoles’ most important weapons with his ability to open up zone defenses and knock down open jumpers. He has made at least three long-distance shots in each of the last four games and has done it while shooting 48.1 percent from deep. He has shot 50 percent from the field in the last three games.
“PJ has always been confident and very capable, but he wasn’t in the system, so it just took him awhile to start adjusting to the moving parts that we’ve had on this team,” Hamilton said.
Savoy seems to have found his sweet spot in Hamilton’s rotation and that has led to a sweet trip to Los Angeles where Savoy will hope to continue his double-figure scoring stretch and keep building on his recent performances.
“I know we’ve got a lot more to prove and a lot more growth to go through, so we’re looking for big things heading forward.”
The Seminoles play No. 4-seed Gonzaga at Staples Center on Thursday at 9:59 p.m. EDT. The game will be televised on TBS.