CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – With the clock running down and its 10-game winning streak on the line, the Florida State men’s basketball team could hardly have asked for a much better opportunity.
Needing a 3-pointer to tie the Virginia Cavaliers, the Seminoles gave the ball to their 3-point specialist, who just two days before had played the hero in a win over Notre Dame.
Then, when Wyatt Wilkes’ shot from the top of the key missed, a rebound and kickout made its way to FSU’s best and most battle-tested player.
But Trent Forrest’s 3-point attempt missed as well, and, a few moments later, the No. 5 Seminoles officially had a 61-56 defeat that came with a bitter reminder of a mantra that coach Leonard Hamilton often likes to repeat:
Nothing comes easy in the ACC, especially on the road, and games are typically decided by the finest of margins.
“We had a hard time getting any separation at all,” said Hamilton, whose team led by eight in the early goings but otherwise was locked into a one-score affair for most of the second half.
“And when we did get a few points ahead, I thought they did great job of staying focused and moving the ball and attacking us off the dribble.”
Indeed, that’s what put the Seminoles into their last-minute deficit in the first place.
UVA’s Mamadi Diakite had a game-high 19 points, but, in the second half, it was the quickness and athleticism of guard Kihei Clark that caused problems.
Working his way into the paint, often against bigger defenders, Clark scored 15 points, shot seven free throws and dished four assists. UVA finished with a 24-20 advantage in points in the the paint, and doubled FSU’s combined dunks and layups.
“We’re not the rim-protecting team we’ve been in the past,” Hamilton said. “We had a hard time containing the dribble. …
“(Clark) is a very clever guy with the ball.”
Devin Vassell scored 17 points and six rebounds, and RaiQuan Gray added eight points for FSU, which lost for the first time in nearly two months.
Vassell reached double-digit scoring for the seventh consecutive ACC game, and three times in the second half made shots when the game was either tied or within one point in either direction.
It made for a cruel turn, then, when Vassell’s last shot attempt, with 35 seconds to play and the Seminoles trailing by one, missed and fell to the Cavaliers.
“We depend on him,” Hamilton said. “He made a couple timely shots for us. We just didn’t have enough of them going.”
Already playing in one of the ACC’s most consistently difficult environments, the Seminoles found another hurdle midway through the second half when UVA’s Clark drew a hard foul from FSU freshman Balsa Koprivica.
Officials initially ruled it a Flagrant 1 foul, but, after replay review, upgraded it a Flagrant 2 – giving UVA two foul shots, possession of the ball and, worst of all for FSU, ejecting Koprivica for the remainder of the game.
At the time, the Seminoles led by three points with 7:04 to play. They were then outscored, 17-9, the rest of the way.
Hamilton, though, refused to accept that call or its consequences as an excuse.
“He’s not a malicious kid,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think he intended to hurt anybody. I just think he was overly aggressive and (the officials) made the decision based on the letter of how they interpret the rules. …
“I don’t think that had anything to do with the game.”
Still, even as the Cavaliers mounted their late-game surge, and as their crowd roared awake in kind, the Seminoles still had that chance tie the game and force overtime.
Hamilton said he thought the Cavaliers might foul on the way down the floor, forcing a Seminole to the free-throw line and denying the opportunity for three points.
But UVA, notorious for its defense under coach Tony Bennett, opted to play it straight.
“We’ve won however many games with hitting those shots and we missed them today,” said Wilkes, who made five 3-pointers against Notre Dame on Saturday. “Virginia is extremely tough, they’re going to play you tough and they’re at home. That’s how it is.”
FSU will look to start its next winning streak not far from where this one ended. The Seminoles will play at Virginia Tech (14-7, 5-5 ACC) on Saturday (4 p.m., ACC Network).
The Hokies lost at Miami, 71-61, on Tuesday night.
“I would love to have gone undefeated for the remainder of the season, but we probably were not going to do that,” Hamilton said. “I think what we’ll have to do is evaluate and learn from the challenges that UVA gave us, and hopefully we can better prepared for the next time we play them, and also prepared for the next game that we play.”