TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – No MJ Walker. No problem.
Guards Trent Forrest, Devin Vassell and David Nichols offset the injury absence of Walker Monday night as No. 11 Florida State reeled off its fourth consecutive victory, pulling away late, 85-68 over Southeast Missouri.
Forrest and Vassell recorded career-high scoring performances with 23 and 16 points, respectively, as the Seminoles (9-1) dispatched the Redhawks (5-7) with defensive pressure and a torrid 60-percent shooting performance in the second half.
Nichols added 13 points, contributing to a 43-21 scoring disparity by the Seminoles’ deep bench on a night when senior Phil Cofer made his first appearance of the season in an abbreviated reserve role.
“The unique thing about our team is I think we have enough parts that we can find someone that’s capable of stepping up and being productive,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “That’s what happened tonight…That’s who we are.”
The Seminoles needed all the contributions they could find, especially with the Redhawks locked in from beyond the 3-point arc from the start. SEMO drilled four of its first six 3-point attempts – while the Noles missed nine of their first 10 shots from the floor – for a 21-10 lead at the midway mark of the half.
That’s when Forrest went to work, repeatedly attacking the rim. The junior point guard had 11 points during a 15-5 run that all but erased the 11-point deficit.
“Our shots weren’t falling so we needed to get to the basket some; get to the foul line,” Forrest said. “Pushing the tempo just helped us get some easy points.”
SEMO pushed its lead back to six before back-to-back baskets by Vassell, including the Noles’ first successful 3-pointer – after nine misses – to pull within 31-30. Forrest’s steal and layup with 1:19 remaining gave FSU its first lead since the 16:55 mark, only have it erased by Skyler Hogan’s 3-pointer.
FSU 7-foot-4 center Christ Koumadje’s putback dunk to beat the buzzer sent the teams to the locker room deadlocked at 34-34.
Koumadje’s slam was a harbinger of things to come. After a see-saw start to the second half, the senior big man was in the middle of FSU decisive second half run at the defensive end. Three of his season-high four blocked shots came after intermission, triggering fast breaks and deterring the Redhawks’ penetrate-and-pitch offense which had been brilliant in the first half.
“You know what you’re getting into when you play a Florida State team,” SEMO coach Ricky Ray said. “They’re going to test your manhood. You’ve got to have the ability to handle pressure, handle denials and really not be afraid of the moment.
“I’m really proud of the way our guys competed for 27-30 minutes.”
To be more precise, the Noles owned the final 14 minutes, erasing a 47-42 deficit with a 12-0 run fueled by Forrest and Vassell. The Redhawks managed just three field goals in a 10-minute stretch and FSU continued to pour it on with defensive-driven scoring spurts of 9-1 and 12-2.
Vassell’s big night did not come as a surprise to Hamilton and veteran teammates.
“He’s just a player,” Hamilton said. “He has great instincts. He figures it out as he’s playing. I think you’re seeing a youngster grow up in front of your eyes.”
“Scary” is the word Nichols, a graduate transfer from Albany, used to describe the freshman from Suwanee, Ga. who was 5-of-7 from the floor, grabbed four rebounds and pitched in an assist and a steal in 19 minutes of efficiency.
“He can score at all three levels,” Nichols said. “He’s athletic, quick, a good listener and just willing to be coached. Once he starts getting the little things together, perfects our defensive system and offensive system, he’s going to be scary…
“If I were to be in that situation at that age, just turning 18, I wouldn’t be ready. I did a year of prep school and that helped tremendously. With him coming in out of high school and producing the way he does in the minutes he’s getting is really insane if you think about it, especially at this level.”
Christ finished off a 12-point, 6-for-6 shooting night with two more dunks, to go along with seven rebounds. A deep 3-pointer by Nichols and a runout by Forrest off a turnover gave the Noles their largest lead, 80-56 with 3:03 remaining, before Hamilton emptied his bench at the end of what amounted to a 39-7 run.
“Christ really made a big difference in there,” Hamilton said. “He clogged the lane up, got some rebounds and blocked four shots. This is the kind of team we’re going to be all year. You’re going to see different guys step up and make plays.”
After notching their 30th consecutive non-conference win at the Donald L. Tucker Center, the Noles will host UNF Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the final home date of the calendar year.