TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (seminoles.com) – Overcoming a barrage of 3-pointers and the banishment of two starters in the first half, Florida State’s depth and growing confidence were decisive in Sunday night’s 88-75 victory over Pittsburgh.
With PJ Savoy and MJ Walker combining for 32 points in rare starting roles, and Phil Cofer and Mfiondu Kabengele contributing 27 points and 12 rebounds, the Noles kept the Panthers winless in ACC play by closing the game on a 23-10 run over the final 6:18.
A second consecutive victory has the Seminoles (19-8, 8-7 ACC) over .500 in league play for just the third time this season with three games remaining. In the process, they extended Pitt’s misery. The Panthers (8-19, 0-15) suffered their 15th consecutive loss and have not won since Dec. 22, 2017.
In a 65-65 tie with 6:18 remaining, Cofer scored the Noles’ next six points in a 6-3 spurt, opening up a lead Pitt could not overcome. Scoreless in the first half, the senior forward scored 12 of his 14 points down the stretch.
“They’re long and athletic and good,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said. “In the end that was the difference. They were able to draw fouls and we couldn’t guard them effectively enough without fouling them. I was very pleased with how our team played and how we competed and sorry for them that we couldn’t pull it out.”
Pitt trailed 74-71 after Shamiel Stevenson’s transition basket with 3:29 remaining, but a pair of MJ Walker free throws and a three-point play by Trent Forrest (12 points, four assists) sealed the deal.
“Their ability to knock 3s down in the first half really, really kept us at bay,” said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, after Pitt’s 10th 3-pointer of the half – Marcus Carr’s triple at the buzzer – sent the Panthers to the locker room with a 39-38 lead. “In the second half we were much more aggressive. In the first half we scored three points off their turnovers and in the second half we scored 15 points.
“We got some deflections, got some steals, got some easy baskets. We got a little momentum and was able in the latter part to extend the lead the last six or seven minutes.”
FSU’s aggressiveness in the second half, at both ends of the floor, was obvious. Not only did the Noles limit the visitors to six 3-point attempts over the final 20 minutes – Pitt took 17 in the first half – but they also forced eight turnovers after the break.
At the offensive end, the Noles repeatedly beat the Panthers off the dribble, opening up passing lanes and creating finishing opportunities, with Kabengele and Cofer obligingly delivering. The inside tandem was largely responsible for FSU’s 36-24 points in the paint advantage, and 17-3 disparity on second-chance points.
“Fiondu, I thought his energy was unbelievable,” Hamilton said. “He was emotional, he energized the team. He was excited and he let everybody know that his effort meant something, and I thought our players responded to him.”
Providing that energy against Pitt’s undersized front line was a role the redshirt freshman embraced.
“With this team, we have so many talented players and there are still some gaps in our game that need to be filled,” Kabengele said. “When I talk to the coaching staff and they tell me what I can excel in – rebounding, defensive end, contesting shots – I decided to take that challenge, do what I can and just execute it.”
His 13 points and six rebounds were no small contributing factors to the outcome. Neither were Savoy’s game-high 18 points, which included five 3-pointers, in his most extended action since missing seven games with a knee injury.
“Man we’ve missed him,” Hamilton said of Savoy.
Savoy and MJ Walker were inserted into the starting lineup as replacements for Terance Mann and Braian Angola, who sat out the entire first half for what Hamilton called a, “small indiscretion.”
After roaring back from 18 points down to defeat 11th-ranked Clemson in the last outing, the Seminoles never seemed to lack the confidence in the face of Pitt’s extended challenge. It certainly didn’t hurt that the Panthers’ foul trouble not only led to three disqualifications, but sent the Noles to the free throw line 40 times.
FSU held a whopping 29-15 edge in free throws made, and were 13 of 17 from the line in the second half.
That the Panthers played exclusively man-to-man defense throughout the game – a rarity this season against the Noles – was a contributing factor to that disparity.
“The reason a lot of teams play us zone, I feel like they can’t guard us; we’re too athletic, talented and can get to the cup,” MJ Walker said. “When we continue to force our will on the opponent it’s hard for them to guard us.”
And when it mattered most, that’s exactly what the Noles did on the way to authoring their 19th win of the season, which will be followed by a seven-day break before traveling to NC State.
Hamilton hopes to use that extended late-season break to refine his rotation in an effort to keep the momentum moving forward with the postseason on the horizon.
“We’ve had some things that we’ve had to overcome during the course of the season,” Hamilton said, noting the injuries to Forrest, Christ Koumadje and Savoy. “It’s kind of kept us from developing a real smooth rotation. Hopefully, with having a few days off now, we can get back in the gym a couple days and really, really start putting things together to make a real, good stretch.
“Somebody in our league is going to make a run there and make a move to the top. We hope that team is us.”