TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Undeterred by a shaky start from his veterans, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton turned to a quartet of youngsters for a spark in his 13th basketball season-opener with the Seminoles, Saturday against tournament-test Manhattan.
Freshmen Dayshawn Watkins, Robbie Berwick and Phil Cofer teamed with sophomore big man Jarquez Smith on a 24-8 closing run, wiping out and 10-point deficit and restoring order, as the Seminoles pulled away to an 81-66 victory at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
Readily admitting that coaches generally shy away from opening opponents like Manhattan – a 25-win team with an NCAA Tournament appearance last season – Hamilton didn’t hesitate to go to his bench when the Jaspers knocked down their first four 3-point attempts and built a 23-13 lead in the opening half.
“They [Manhattan] create a lot of havoc and I thought we were extremely tentative at the beginning of the game,” Hamilton said. “The success of this team this year will be in direct proportion to how much we are able to develop a rotation that will be able to perform at an efficient level when some of the guys are not playing well, or are in foul trouble, or you have an injury or illness.
“Tonight our guys exceeded some of my expectations. I thought Robbie and Dayshawn played a lot better than they’ve practiced…Their ability to come into the game and be calm and execute the things we had in our game plan said an awful lot about them.”
FSU’s youngsters first solved Manhattan’s pesky zone press, then went about attacking the basket and the deficit. A pair of Cofer free throws tied the game at 30-30 and a free throw by Smith with 1:40 remaining put FSU in front to stay. Junior Devon Bookert and Berwick drained 3-pointers down the stretch for a 37-31 halftime lead that was never seriously threatened.
The Seminoles held the Jaspers to 29 percent from the field and held a commanding 32-12 scoring advantage in the paint in a game that was aesthetically marred by a combined 65 fouls, 80 free throws and 42 turnovers.
“That affected rhythm,” said Manhattan coach Steve Masiello, regarding the fouls. “I thought we got a little stagnant…Fouling negates your rhythm and hustle. Give Florida State credit. They got out to our shooters and their size is so imposing that when you get in the lane they force you to make tough 2’s. They’re a very good defensive team. They don’t give you anything easy.”
Florida State received plenty of help offensively, as well, with six Seminoles contributing double-figure scoring efforts. Aaron Thomas led the way with 14 points, while Smith and Kiel Turpin contributed 13 each. Montay Brandon added 12 while Bookert and Berwick finished with 11.
Smith was very much a part of the game-changing run in the first half, scoring six of his career-high 13 points, highlighted by a dunk off a Bookert dish that provided an emotional lift and trimmed FSU’s deficit to two. Smith said he was merely playing to his teammates, especially the freshmen trio that had provided a spark.
“Those three guys always bring energy,” Smith said. “What was running through my head is I have to match their energy. When they got me going, they were able to get everyone else going. When people would sub in, everyone was hyped and ready to play even more…
“It’s a special feeling to be able to lift the entire team up from where we started. When our veterans got back in and picked up where we left off, we felt really good.”
One year removed from being a role-playing freshman, Smith is now part of the starting lineup, and his teammates have noticed a dramatic change.
“He’s grown a lot,” Brandon said of Smith. “Last year, he’d be pouting if he had a turnover. Today, he drove down the sideline and they took the ball from him. Something triggered and after that he played like a grown man. He wouldn’t have done that last year.”
The late first half play of the youngsters certainly left an impression on the most veteran of Seminoles, who scored the first eight points of the second half to build a 14-point lead and never really looked back.
“They gave us our energy,” Brandon said. “Seeing them break the press and get us our lead, we didn’t want to lose it because they had worked so hard to gain it.”
Added Thomas: “Once we regrouped, relaxed and played our game, everything else fell in place.”
The Seminoles will return to the court at home Tuesday to face Northeastern, with tipoff set for 7 p.m.