TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (seminoles.com) – Leonard Hamilton sees plenty of room for his team to improve between now and next Wednesday, when his Florida State men’s basketball team begins ACC play against Wake Forest.
But, at 12-1 following Monday’s 76-68 win over Samford and off to the program’s best start in 13 years, it’s hard to find too much to complain about.
Sophomore Terance Mann scored a career-high 19 points and junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes added 15 points and five assists as the No. 21 Seminoles rolled to their eighth consecutive win on Monday afternoon at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
FSU enters its Christmas break 12-1 for the first time since 2003-04 and with its first eight-game winning streak since 2006.
“We are a team that’s still improving. I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching our potential,” Hamilton said. “Obviously, we’re pleased that we are 12-1 in the pre-conference. Now, it’s on. Let’s get the party started.”
Before the Seminoles could start planning their ACC party, they first had to tend to a Samford team that proved a more difficult matchup than perhaps initially expected.
The Bulldogs (7-4) came into the game having won four straight, and they frustrated the Seminoles by employing a defensive game plan like what Manhattan used against FSU over the weekend.
Samford coach Scott Padgett was an assistant under Manhattan’s Steve Masiello from 2010-12.
“There was a couple things I saw in the way Manhattan played it the other night that I thought we could tweak with and take some things away,” Padgett said. “We said, ‘You’re going to have to play in our half-court zone.”
That served to slow down the Seminoles in the first half, where they shot just 36.4 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from 3-point range.
Samford mixed up its offense too – Padgett said he has a play sheet with about 150 plays on it, but he called only one, a pick and roll, out of deference to FSU’s advantages in size and athleticism.
It may have been a show of respect (Padgett compared FSU’s post players to the “MonStars” from the hoops movie “Space Jam”), but it gave the Seminoles fits at times, and the Bulldogs held a two-point lead with a little more than five minutes to go in the first half.
“We prepared for them to do what they normally do, and they scratched their whole offense,” Mann said. “I guess that’s what they thought would work, and it worked for them for more than half the game.”
With FSU’s top two scorers, Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac, struggling early, FSU found relief in the form of Mann and Rathan-Mayes.
Those two combined to shoot 7 of 9 in the first half while the rest of their teammates were just 5 of 24.
Rathan-Mayes gave FSU a bit of breathing room with a last-second 3-pointer that bounced high off the rim before going through to give the Seminoles a 31-27 lead at the break.
“I don’t think we’ve struggled offensively like that in a while,” Rathan-Mayes said. “So it was a good lift for us, sending us into halftime with some confidence. I think we did a great job of responding and coming out in the second half and playing at a high level on both ends of the floor.”
Indeed, Florida State began the second half by pushing the tempo and scoring four quick points in transition.
Aided by a quick stretch of five points each from both Mann and Braian Angola-Rodas, the Seminoles outscored Samford 17-11 to start the second half and led 50-38 with 12:15 remaining.
That lead ballooned to as much as 17 before Samford whittled it down to seven late in the second half.
“We had a great game plan, I thought,” said Padgett, a former standout at Kentucky and eight-year NBA veteran. “I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be the best crowd with school being out. It’s a two o’clock game, weird time. I don’t even know if they know where Samford’s at. So we had some things going in our favor.”
Not enough, though.
Mann’s best highlight of the night came with a thundering, putback dunk off a Bacon miss with 1:34 to go.
Often used as a jack-of-all trades, Mann on Monday was the team’s best offensive threat. He shot 7 of 8 from the field and 5 of 6 from the free-throw line while also grabbing five rebounds.
Mann’s previous career best (18) came in a loss to Georgia Tech last season.
“I play to win,” Mann said. “I felt like the game was close, so I felt like I needed to step up and try to score more so we could push the lead.”
Bacon struggled from the floor (4 of 15) but still made five free throws to reach 14 points and extend his streak of double-digit scoring games to 23.
And Isaac continued to work himself back into rhythm after missing three games earlier this month with an injury. He had five points and four boards in 23 minutes.
“It’s good to be able to win with different guys stepping up,” Hamilton said. Bacon and Jonathan didn’t have their usual good nights. We didn’t get the ball inside to our big guys. But, then Terance and ‘X’ stepped up and gave us good play.”
With a nine-day break ahead, Hamilton said he expects the Seminoles to tighten up some small details while renewing their commitment to maximum effort.
If they can do that, he believes everything else will fall into place.
“Mentally, we’ve got to understand that games are not always going to be perfect. You’re not always going to play at your best. But if you’re fundamentally sound and play the right way, most of the time you can find a way to be the best you can be.
“And that’s what our goal will be.”