CLEMSON, S.C. – The Florida State men’s basketball team led for more than 31 minutes here at Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum, and the Seminoles never trailed by more than three points.
And yet, FSU still rallied for one of its most impressive and important victories of the season.
Facing a hostile crowd and a Clemson team desperate for a resume-boosting win, No. 19 Florida State erased a three-point deficit with two minutes to go and scored the game’s final five points on the way to a 76-74 victory over the Tigers.
Xavier Rathan-Mayes scored 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half, Jonathan Isaac added 14 and Dwayne Bacon chipped in 12 for the Seminoles, who won on the road for the first time in their last three tries.
Florida State (23-6, 11-5 ACC) visits No. 10 Duke on Tuesday.
“That felt great,” Isaac said. … “That’s been our Achilles heel, so with everybody saying, ‘They can’t win on the road,’ it just felt extra great because we proved them wrong.”
Rathan-Mayes sparked FSU’s late rally with a pair of free throws followed by a falling, hard layup that put the Seminoles on top for good with 1:22 on the clock.
FSU’s defense, meanwhile, did not allow the Tigers to make any of their final five attempts from the floor.
Isaac blocked Clemson’s Shelton Mitchell near the basket with 11 seconds to play, then, after Trent Forrest made a free throw to stretch FSU’s lead to two points, the Seminoles disrupted Marcquise Reed’s last-second shot attempt and forced it short off the front of the rim.
Rathan-Mayes grabbed the rebound, the clock ran out and the Seminoles could finally exhale.
“They called a timeout,” Isaac said, “and we just locked in, in the huddle, and said, ‘We’re not going to give up anything else.’”
And so they didn’t. Clemson went the final two minutes, six seconds with a single point, and the Tigers finished the game on a 2-for-10 cold streak from the floor.
“(Clemson) probably played well enough to win the game,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We just were fortunate to make a couple plays at the end that gave us a chance.”
Saturday’s game was a far cry from the first meeting between the two, when FSU raced out to a double-digit lead and handed the Tigers a 48-point defeat three weeks ago in Tallahassee.
Hamilton insisted that the lopsided result was an aberration and that the Tigers (14-14, 4-12) were much better than their record suggested.
They proved him right on Saturday.
Despite holding the lead for much of the game, the Seminoles were never up by more than seven points. FSU held a 38-37 advantage at halftime and survived 11 lead changes over the final 20 minutes.
Clemson, which fell in heartbreaking fashion to Virginia Tech earlier this week, lost its ninth game by six or fewer points.
“When you look back at the fact that they’ve lost nine game by less than six points, it says an awful lot,” Hamilton said. “That they’re awful close.”
More significant, though, was the way this one differed from the Seminoles’ recent outings on the road.
FSU was sharp and energized from the opening tip-off and avoided the type of pitfalls that led to double-digit deficits at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh earlier this month.
The Seminoles shot well from the field (24-53, 45.3 percent) and were excellent from the free-throw line, where they connected on 23 of their 28 attempts.
And FSU’s depth, a hallmark of its success throughout the season, rose to the occasion after several Seminoles fell into foul trouble.
With Terance Mann fouling out near the end of the game and Michael Ojo limited by four fouls, the Seminoles got crunch-time contributions from Forrest (nine points, five rebounds) as well as extended minutes from Jarquez Smith, Christ Koumadje, Braian Angola-Rodas and Phil Cofer.
“That’s one of the strengths of our team – that we’ve been able to get guys in foul trouble and maintain a certain quality of play because of the quality of our depth,” Hamilton said.
Even despite a disjointed few moments near the end of the first half, the Seminoles went into the break holding a lead on the road for the first time this season.
Then, when Clemson went on its late run and brought the 9,000 fans in attendance to a roar, the Seminoles responded in a way they hadn’t since winning at Virginia nearly two months ago.
That was thanks in large part to Rathan-Mayes, who in addition to providing a scoring spark, once again guided the Seminoles with a steady hand from the point.
The junior dished seven assists, committed just one turnover and made 5 of his 6 free-throw attempts.
Dating back to Monday’s game at Boston College, Rathan-Mayes has 17 assists against one turnover.
“They were doing a great job of kind of denying (Bacon) and they were doing the same thing with Jon,” Rathan-Mayes said. “So I was able to be a little more aggressive. My teammates did such a great job of allowing me to do what I do, whether it’s getting guys involved or scoring the basketball.”
A win Saturday also allowed the Seminoles to keep pace in the ACC standings, where they remain in second place and two games behind North Carolina.
With two games left in the regular season, FSU remains in the thick of the race for a top-four seed and a double-bye in next month’s ACC tournament.
“It was a big win for us,” Forrest said. “We know that home wins are big. But getting road wins help your resume a lot. So that was one of the biggest parts about this win – getting a good, solid road win.”
And, along with it, a fresh boost of confidence as they prepare to play in one of the toughest environments in college basketball.
The Seminoles will be looking for their first win at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium since 2012. And the Blue Devils are still smarting from an 88-72 loss in Tallahassee earlier this season.
“We got that stigma out of our head of, ‘Can’t win on the road.’ That’s big,” Isaac said. “But now it’s non-stop. We’ve got to refocus and get ready for Duke on the road.”