TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – On a night when nothing came easy, No. 8 Florida State cashed in from the free throw line when it mattered most, pulling away to a 78-68 victory Thursday over No. 19 Michigan State.
The Noles converted their final 18 free throw attempts and limited the Spartans to just two field goals on their final 14 attempts. The net result was an eighth consecutive Big Ten/ACC Challenge victory for the Noles, who moved to 8-0 for the fourth time in coach Sue Semrau’s 23 seasons at the helm.
“I’m just really proud of the way we responded after a big win on the road and after having three road games,” said Semrau, whose team won 80-58 at No. 6 Texas A&M on Sunday. “Michigan State is a great team…they rattled us for a while. We hadn’t seen that kind of defensive pressure. I thought we made some good adjustments in the second half.
“The kids battled. I’m just really proud of them.”
Kiah Gillespie led the Noles with 24 points and 12 rebounds, while Nicki Ekhomu added 15 points. They combined for 21 of the team’s 29 fourth quarter points – their highest quarter output of the season – to outscore the Spartans by 13 and seal the victory.
The Noles navigated a difficult path to their first back-to-back wins over Top-25 non-conference opponents since 1992. They overcame their lowest scoring quarter and largest deficit of the season after being outscored 19-9 by the Spartans in the second quarter.
Michigan State (6-2) opened up a 35-25 lead on Taryn McCutcheon’s 3-pointer with 2:01 to play in the half. It was the eighth 3-pointer of the half for the Spartans, who were 8-of-18 from beyond the arc. It also turned out to be their final basket.
Spinning through the lane, Nausia Woolfolk’s left-handed bank snapped FSU’s nearly, six-minute scoring drought.with 1:40 remaining. Kourtney Webber closed out the half with a traditional three-point play, converting an offensive rebound and tacking on the free throw as the Noles went to the locker room trailing 35-30.
Woolfolk led the Noles with 11 points at the break, nine of which came in the first quarter as FSU opened up a 21-16 lead.
Semrau was not happy with her squads’ inability to match the Spartans’ toughness and defensive pressure in the first half.
“We didn’t have any sense of urgency on the defensive end,” Semrau said. “You lose a quarter 19-9. That’s not who we are. They did a great job talking about it halftime; staying mature. The leadership, I thought, was very good.”
While the senior trio of Gillespie, Ekhomu and Woolfolk provide the bulk of that leadership, to go along with their production (50 points, 26 rebounds), sophomore center Valencia Myers stepped to the fore midway through the third quarter.
“I’m considered one of the toughest players on the team,” Myers said. “I’m also an energy player, so I know if I go on my runs – I’m playing stronger and playing aggressive – it’s going to help the team tremendously. I got my head back right that’s what happened.”
Myers powered her way six straight points for the Noles over the final two minutes of the third quarter as FSU trimmed a seven-point deficit to 52-49 with a quarter to play.
From there the Noles’ defense took control, contesting shots and dominating the glass. The Spartans were just 3-of-18 from 3-point range in the second half and the Noles held a commanding 46-30 rebounding advantage.
Michigan State’s Nia Clouden (22 points) hit a pull-up jumper with 5:35 remaining for a 58-54 lead, but the Spartans missed their next nine field goal attempts over a five-minute stretch. A Gillespie putback pulled the Noles within one and a pair of Ekhomu free throws put FSU on top 59-58 with 3:42. It was the Noles’ first lead since early in the second quarter and one they would not relinquish.
“We just picked up our energy and intensity,” said Myers, who contributed a season-high 12 points. “We figured out ways to handle their pressure. We got the ball to our point people and we started making free throws. We got into more of a rhythm to finish the fourth.”
And the Spartans.
Florida State opens its ACC schedule on Sunday at Clemson.