WATCH: Noles beat Vermont, 76-69, in first round of NCAA tournament
HARTFORD, Conn. – Terance Mann drove through the lane, switched the ball from his left hand to his right on the way to the basket, then finished a pretty layup with ease.
As he hit the floor, Mann looked to Florida State’s bench and flexed toward his teammates, all of them seeming to share the feeling that had just settled over Hartford’s XL Center:
That after a tense, back-and-forth struggle with hot-shooting Vermont, the Seminoles would be just fine after all.
Mann scored 19 points – 17 in the second half – and Mfiondu Kabengele added 21 points and 10 rebounds as Florida State, seeded fourth in the NCAA tournament’s West region, topped No. 13 Vermont, 76-69.
“Any separation that we got down that game felt like a big moment,” Mann said. “Because it was back and forth the whole time – up three, three; up one, down one.
“I think that was one of the plays that gave us momentum. And it was at a crucial time.”
Florida State (28-7), which has won five consecutive first-round games and set a new school record with 28 wins in a single season, will meet No. 12 Murray State here on Saturday.
The Racers upset fifth-seeded Marquette later on Thursday.
“That felt more like an ACC regular season game than we expected,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “(Vermont) were very well prepared. They’re a good basketball team and sound fundamentally.”
Neither an uncharacteristic 3-point shooting for the Catamounts (27-7), nor a heavily-partisan Vermont crowd could derail the Seminoles, and neither could a rash of injuries both before and during the game.
Which isn’t to say they all didn’t try.
With FSU senior Phil Cofer sidelined by a foot injury, Vermont shot well above its head from beyond the arc and led by as many as nine points midway through the first half.
The Catamounts came into the game shooting just 35.9 from 3-point range, but against FSU connected on a season-high 16 of 32 (50 percent).
That more than helped them counter Florida State’s overwhelming size advantage, and it helped them to a 27-27 tie after a first half in which they outshot and out-rebounded the heavily-favored Seminoles.
“We knew they were a good shooting team,” Hamilton said. “But, gosh, it’s very hard to go win a basketball game when a team makes 16 3s.”
The Seminoles, though, did win, and they did it the same way they usually do – with a deep bench, with top-tier athleticism and with imposing size.
Even without Cofer, and with Mann and David Nichols playing through knocks picked up during the game, the Seminoles enjoyed healthy discrepancies in bench points (30-7), points in the paint (30-14), points off of turnovers (17-5) and points from the free-throw line (31-7).
They also submitted a few bids for end-of-day highlight shows.
Like this coast-to-coast run from Mann:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2019
Or this dunk from Kabengele:
You think Mfiondu Kabengele is fired up? pic.twitter.com/AsL8ADW2Od
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 21, 2019
Or, even better, this dunk from Kabengele:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2019
That last one, in which Kabengele beat a triple-team on his way the basket, made it 61-53 with less than four minutes to play, and effectively put the Catamounts at arm’s length for good.
“I think, when the kid stepped through a triple team and dunked it, it was kind of telling that we were wearing down,” Vermont coach John Becker said.
FSU’s Trent Forrest was a little less technical in his analysis:
“It’s crazy,” Forrest said, stretching the word “crazy” into three syllables. “That’s probably the craziest dunk I’ve seen by a big man in a long time …
“‘Fi,’ he’s just a beast in the paint.”
So were his teammates, once they found their stride.
All told, nearly 40 percent of Florida State’s points came in the paint, aided by an efficient 13-of-20 clip via dunks and layups.
And when they weren’t finishing at the basket, the Seminoles were drawing fouls.
FSU’s 37 free-throw attempts were a season high, and their 83.8 conversion rate was nine percentage points above their season average.
“One of our goals for this season was to be a much-improved free-throw shooting team,” Hamilton said. “And I think you’re seeing it kind of paying off in games like this, where every point is important. Every possession is important. We were able to come through with excellent free-throw shooting down the stretch.”
And, despite Vermont’s hot night at the 3-point line, the Seminoles made it difficult for the Catamounts at seemingly every other spot on the floor.
UVM’s Anthony Lamb, the America East conference player of the year, led the Catamounts with 16 points and eight rebounds, but he also finished just 4 of 13 from the field and took only five shots in the second half.
And the Catamounts generally found things tougher and tougher the closer they got to the basket.
The Seminoles blocked four shots, grabbed nine steals and forced Vermont into 16 turnovers.
“We had a point there in the second half where we got some deflections and steals and got the ball out and got some easy baskets there,” Hamilton said. “We got some stops, and I think we scored six points in a row in transition. … I thought that gave us some separation and sped them up a little bit during that time.
“I thought that really made the difference in the game.”