TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With Aaron Thomas returning to familiar form and Montay Brandon delivering a career-high offensive performance, Florida State ran away from UCF 96-73 Saturday at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
Thomas’ 22 points were a promising sign for the Seminoles, who had not eclipsed 70 points in a game since a 76-73 loss to Northeastern on Nov. 18, when he scored a season-high 24. It was the junior guard’s most complete performance since falling ill at the half in a loss to UMass and subsequently missing the next two games.
Perhaps even more encouraging was the career-high 25-point effort by Brandon on 10-of-12 shooting. The slashing 6-foot-8 swingman also led the way with six rebounds as the Seminoles (4-4) climbed back to .500 on the season entering finals week with the ACC opener at Notre Dame just a week away.
“Having Aaron back obviously makes a huge difference for us,” said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton. “I thought Montay and Aaron showed their leadership in the game.”
The Seminoles were far from two-dimensional offensively as they posted their highest point-production since a 101-90 win over Georgetown in last season’s second-round NIT game. Sophomore forward Jarquez Smith contributed a career-high 16 points on a 7-of-8 shooting, while senior center Kiel Turpin added 10 points as the Noles looked inside early and often.
“We wanted to make sure that we gave them every opportunity to get the touches,” Hamilton said of his post players. “They do such a good job running the floor, and as a result of running of the floor, it opens up other things for you.”
Turpin scored three of FSU’s first six field goals, exploiting the Knights (5-2) with a soft jump-hook.
“It’s a huge lift for our team just to have their defense having to focusing more on me, because it opens up a lot of baskets for Montay and Jarquez to have wide-open looks,” Turpin said. “With me starting off strong that brings more and more energy for the team and kind of sets the pace.”
By focusing inside translated into a bulging 64-32 points-in-the-pain scoring advantage, to go along with a decisive 42-25 rebounding edge.
“I was pleased by the fact that we scored 41 baskets off 20 assists,” Hamilton said. “It means our guys understand a little bit better how to move the ball and make the extra pass. We have not been as consistent in that area as I hope we will be as we continue growing.”
The share-the-wealth performance included a season-high six assists by reserve point guard Dayshawn Watkins, while Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Robbie Berwick and Thomas chipped in four assists each.
Florida State led by as many as 25 in the second half, firmly seizing control of the contest on back-to-back three-point plays by Brandon for a 64-45 lead with 13:54 to play in the game.
Brandon’s big night coincided with his decision to wear a long-sleeved gold shirt under his jersey, carrying over his normal practice attire to the game floor.
“I practice in them all the time so I just felt like it would be more comfortable for me in the game if I wore the long sleeves out there,” said Brandon.
“He needs to wear them all the time,” Thomas said, laughing.
Brandon matched his previous career high of 19 points when his intended lob pass to Michael Ojo slipped through the rim for an 81-58 lead. “That was a little bit of luck,” Brandon said.
After two missed free throws, he made amends with back-to-back drives to the basket for an 87-62 lead – FSU’s largest of the night.
“It was very encouraging knowing my teammates looked for me and put me in position where I could score,” Brandon said. “My teammates deserve a lot of credit. Plus, with us just sharing the ball and moving it, we didn’t care who got the credit. We just played to each other’s strengths.”
“Montay’s playing totally within himself,” Hamilton said. “Getting defensive stops and getting out in transition, gives him a chance to utilize his ability to attack the basket and finish. He’s rebounding really well.”
The Seminoles actually took control of the game before intermission. Shooting a season-high 75 percent from the floor in the first half, the Seminoles opened up a 47-37 lead that the Knight never threatened. FSU went on a 13-0 run in a two-minute spurt late in the first half to turn a two-point game into a 41-26 advantage, with Thomas contributing six points as the Noles capitalized on three UCF turnovers.
FSU had four players in double figures at the break and its 47 points were the most since scoring 48 at home against Georgetown in last season’s second-round NIT game.
Now Hamilton’s club begin turning its attention toward what figures to be a challenging ACC schedule which will begin Saturday on the road at Notre Dame.
“We know it’s very important,” Brandon said of the UCF win. “We can’t afford any more bad losses or losses that will hurt our resume, especially with Notre Dame coming up [next] weekend. We know we needed to get some kind of momentum going up to South Bend.”