TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Of all the astounding things Jonathan Isaac did here on Wednesday night – and there were many – the most impressive might have had nothing to do with his jumping ability or his speed or the way he plays like a guard in a forward’s body.
With 11 seconds to play and Florida State clinging to a four-point lead against a Notre Dame team that seemingly could not miss, Isaac, a freshman from Naples, calmly drained two free-throws that gave FSU some welcome breathing room and assured that the Seminoles would beat the Fighting Irish.
Those two free-throws – which capped off a perfect 7 for 7 night at the line – put an exclamation point on what was likely the best game of Isaac’s young career: 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots in No. 10 FSU’s 83-80 victory over No. 15 Notre Dame.
“It was great,” Isaac said. “My teammates are in my head at the free-throw line, (telling me) I got this, telling me that they believe in me to make these shots. So, I just stepped up to the line with ultimate confidence and knocked them down.”
Isaac’s growing confidence is great news for the Seminoles (17-2, 5-1 ACC) and a potential nightmare for the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A former five-star prospect and high-school All-American, Isaac had shown flashes of brilliance throughout the first few weeks of the season. But never anything like this.
After 17 points and 12 boards in last week’s loss at North Carolina, Isaac is riding back-to-back double-doubles.
The UNC game, which dealt FSU its first loss in nearly two months, left Isaac unsatisfied.
But he felt a lot better after this one. Not only did Isaac erupt on the stat sheet, but he seemed to give the Seminoles exactly what they needed to hand Notre Dame its first blemish in conference play.
There were, of course, the free throws. But there were also the two second-half 3-pointers that Irish coach Mike Brey called “back-breaking.” And there were the 10 rebounds that helped the Seminoles enjoy an advantage on the glass and strike for 14 second-chance points.
And there were the seven blocks that frustrated the Irish and ensured that almost all of Notre Dame’s offense came from outside.
It was enough to have Brey joking after the game that Isaac should be a surefire pro.
“Jonathan is locked into the game,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “And what we have intentionally done with him is not try to pressure him to force shots or create things. We’re letting him mature at the right pace. His pace.
“I think he’s gaining more confidence. He doesn’t feel any pressure other than he’s growing and maturing and looking for opportunities to affect the game. It’s organic.”
And, as it turns out, Florida State needed every last bit of it to topple the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame entered with a reputation as one of the nation’s best 3-point and free-throw shooting teams.
To say that the Fighting Irish lived up to that reputation would be a historic understatement.
Led by 18 points from senior guard Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame shot an eye-rubbing 15 of 21 from 3-point range.
That includes four from Vasturia and forward VJ Beachem and three from guard Matt Farrell.
A few times, Notre Dame’s quick ball movement led to an open look from beyond the arc. But far more often, in Hamilton’s estimation, the Irish just knocked down difficult shots. Over and over again.
“I’ve never seen a team shoot 15 of 21 from 3, period,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never witnessed it. It’s hard to shoot 71 percent from 3 if you’re in the gym by yourself and nobody’s guarding you at all. And we gave some pretty good contests. … We had a lot of guys jumping to the moon and it didn’t seem to matter.”
And it nearly helped the Irish win a game that might otherwise have been a blowout in FSU’s favor.
Because despite their red-hot shooting from perimeter, Notre Dame wilted in the face of the Seminoles’ size and depth and shot just 12 of 37 from inside 3-point range.
Florida State blocked 11 shots and allowed the Irish only 24 points in the paint.
“We beat a very good basketball team,” Hamilton said. “A team that I’m sure is going to give a lot of teams problems throughout the remainder of the year.”
Despite FSU holding advantages seemingly across the board, Notre Dame’s 3-point shooting kept things close in the second half and even allowed the Irish to take a brief lead with about six minutes to go.
But FSU got contributions from Isaac, as well as guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes and C.J. Walker down the stretch that helped seal the victory.
Walker scored all nine of his points in the second half, including a pair of free-throws in the final minute.
And Rathan-Mayes scored six of his eight points in the final four minutes, two of which came from off-balance shots that bounced off the rim and in.
“Mayes, I thought, because he’s been in a lot of wins, with his two drives, those were dagger kind of buckets for us,” Brey said.
From there, the Seminoles had just one key task: make free throws. That was a sore spot on Saturday, when they missed 14 free-throws in a 13-point loss at North Carolina.
This time, however, things were different as Walker and Isaac combined to make six straight from the line in the final 25 seconds to seal the victory.
With those points in hand, not even a last-gasp Irish 3-pointer – as contested and off-balance as any all night – could change the outcome.
“It was very satisfying, just to show that we can close,” Rathan-Mayes said. “We did such a good job of that. We struggled with it in North Carolina.”
The win is FSU’s 13th in its last 14 games. The Seminoles are 17-2 overall, tied with Notre Dame and UNC for first place in the ACC and now have five wins over ranked opponents this season.
They’ll get a chance at another on Saturday, when they host No. 12 Louisville (2 p.m., ESPN).