TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Seminoles.com) – After knocking down his third 3-pointer in the span of a little more than a minute – a contested shot in the corner – Phil Cofer took a quick glance at the Winthrop bench and smiled.
And, in what might have been a show of admiration, at least one Eagle smiled right back at him.
Cofer, Florida State’s leading scorer from a year ago, officially returned to the Seminoles’ lineup on Dec. 17 after missing nine games with a foot injury.
But it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, when Cofer started for the first time this season, scored 14 points in 28 minutes and helped the ninth-ranked Seminoles to an 87-76 victory over Winthrop at the Tucker Center, that Cofer started to look like his usual self.
And although coach Leonard Hamilton doesn’t yet believe that Cofer is all-the-way back, it’s hard to look at Cofer’s game against Winthrop as anything other than a solid step forward.
“It was nice just to see shots falling for him, after what he’s been through,” said senior Terance Mann, who scored 14 of his game-high 22 points in the second half. “He’s been key for us. His energy is back on the defensive end, the vocal energy. And that’s just what we needed.”
Cofer’s latest stride in his return to form came at a fine time: With their non-conference schedule now complete, the Seminoles (12-1) will open their Atlantic Coast Conference campaign on Saturday at No. 4 Virginia (3 p.m., ESPN2), in what will be just the eighth Top-10 matchup in program history.
“I was pleased,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I hadn’t planned to use (Cofer) that much, but he’s showing that he’s getting back, getting some of the rust off, so to speak.
“We’ve got to be careful not to overdo it with him this early in the season, and that’s challenging because we’re getting ready to go and play Saturday against a team (Virginia) that went 17-1 in our league last year.”
Despite leading by as many as 18 points early in the second half, FSU found itself in a close affair for much of the afternoon.
Playing without leading scorer Nych Smith (undisclosed injury), Winthrop (8-5) employed a small, fast lineup and managed to shoot 49 percent from the field despite an uncharacteristically poor effort from 3-point range.
The Eagles came into the game ranked second nationally with an average of 13.3 made 3-pointers per game, but they made just six of 23 from the arc on Tuesday.
“They made that very, very difficult,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said. “Especially in the first half, they were really staying locked on to our shooters.”
Indeed, the Eagles made only one of their 10 first-half 3-point attempts, which allowed FSU to turn what was a close game midway through the period (26-25 at the 9:31 mark) into a 52-36 advantage at the break.
Winthrop, however, found its shooting stroke early in the second half. The Eagles made 11 of their first 17 attempts after halftime, outscored FSU by 12 points over the course of about eight minutes and trailed by just two, 65-63, with 11:20 to play.
“They made some adjustments,” Hamilton said. “I thought we had a little energy dip there, defensively, and they did a very good job of attacking the basket.”
But with FSU flirting with what would have been a deflating defeat, redshirt freshman Anthony Polite gave the Seminoles some breathing room with one of the better brief stretches of his young career.
It started with a layup on FSU’s ensuing possession, continued with a pair of made free-throws after a Winthrop turnover, then finished in emphatic fashion with a steal and a layup in transition.
In the span of just 33 seconds, Polite had scored six straight points, extended FSU’s lead to eight and prompted Winthrop to take a timeout.
“I did my best to bring back the energy,” said Polite, who finished with eight points and a career-high five rebounds. “I was able to follow the principles, get some steals and bring back energy.”
The Eagles cut their deficit to three points on three separate occasions but could get no closer thanks in large part to an aggressive FSU defense that, despite missing sophomore MJ Walker, forced 13 steals and blocked eight shots.
Redshirt sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele had three of his four blocks in the last 4:32.
“There are many ways to affect the game. It doesn’t have to be about scoring,” Kabengele said. “Blocks, I was able to find my little (role) and I was able to assert myself on the defensive end. And it created a lot of energy, started the fast break. We got easy layups, we got fouls. So it was really good.”
In his post-game press conference, Hamilton said that Tuesday’s game followed a familiar pattern – the Seminoles had some very positive stretches, mixed in with some lulls that show that they’re still a work in progress.
But like nearly every other game this season, this one also ended with a double-digit victory. The Seminoles are 12-1, and nine of their wins have come by a margin of at least 10 points.
Those type of results, along with what he feels is plenty of room to improve, have Hamilton feeling upbeat as the Seminoles turn their focus to ACC play.
“The most positive thing I can say is that we can feel good at the fact that we’re 12-1,” he said. “And I really believe that we still have a lot of upside with this team to go.”