NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A year ago to the day, Mfiondu Kabengele sat in a locker room inside Orlando’s Amway Arena and watched as Florida State veterans Dwayne Bacon, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Michael Ojo and Jarquez Smith celebrated the Seminoles’ victory over Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It’s not that Kabengele wasn’t happy, too. It’s just that, as he neared the end of a redshirt year, he felt a little funny about celebrating a game in which he didn’t play.
“I told myself, ‘I can’t wait to go through this moment,’” Kabengele said.
Kabengele’s moment finally arrived Friday night in Nashville, and he seized it in fine fashion by leading the Seminoles in points (14) and rebounds (12) as they cruised to the second round of the Big Dance with a 67-54 win over Missouri.
It was Kabengele’s second double-double of the season, and first since the Seminoles routed The Citadel nearly four months ago.
“He’s a great player,” FSU senior Braian Angola said. “For his size, it’s amazing what he can do.”
A 6-9, 235-pound forward and the nephew of Basketball Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo, Kabengele hasn’t been shy about discussing his redshirt year.
It wasn’t always easy, he said, and there were plenty of times when he wished he could have been out on the floor helping his teammates, rather than grinding away in the gym in preparation for a future that, at times, felt pretty far away.
Fast-forward a year, and Kabengele’s big picture has come into focus.
“All the months that I prepared, all the practices, coaches getting on me – they saw something in me, and I appreciate that,” he said. “Now that I’m here and I performed well, helped my teammates out, I feel really vindicated. I feel really good.”
And while the final score of Friday’s game might suggest that Kabengele simply piled on in a lopsided affair, a closer look shows that the redshirt freshman delivered in some critical moments.
After coming off the bench to a 7-1 deficit, Kabengele drained a jumpshot that helped the Seminoles break out of an early cold spell and launch a dominant effort for the remainder of the first half.
Kabengele later made a corner 3-pointer early in the second half, connected on five of six free-throw attempts during a two-minute span down the stretch, and more than held his own while defending Missouri standout Michael Porter Jr.
Porter finished with 16 points but made only four of his 12 shots from the field.
“He’s a talented player,” Kabengele said. “So I just took that challenge to make sure I stayed in front of him, make sure to make him take tough shots and just defend him – and hopefully make him guard me as well.”
As good as Kabengele was on Friday, coach Leonard Hamilton believes that he still has plenty of room to grow over the next few years of his career.
Kabengele will get a chance to take another step forward on Sunday, when the Seminoles meet top-seeded Xavier with a trip to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles on the line.
“He still goes on instincts, but he has tremendous skill,” Hamilton said. “He plays with such enthusiasm and aggressiveness, and he plays through his mistakes. The thing about him, his best basketball is ahead of him as he continues to grow and develop.”