NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Florida State men’s basketball team could hardly have scripted a better first 20 minutes.
But after a dream of a first half in their NCAA tournament game against Missouri, the Seminoles found themselves on the brink of a nightmare.
What once was a 22-point lead had been quickly whittled down to six. The Missouri-heavy crowd, dormant for much of the evening, gave Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena the feel of an MU home game.
And leading scorer Terance Mann, having already been treated in the locker room earlier in the game, limped off the floor after a hard fall midway through the second half.
It had the feel of a painful loss in the making, the kind that the Texas Longhorns felt here earlier in the day when they squandered a double-digit lead in an overtime loss to Nevada.
The Seminoles, however, decided that one dramatic rally in Nashville was enough. With their lead seemingly at its most vulnerable, FSU stunned Missouri by reeling off 15 straight points that snuffed out the Tigers’ comeback bid and sealed a 67-54 win in front of 17,549 fans.
FSU (21-11), seeded ninth in the NCAA tournament’s west region, will play top-seeded Xavier (29-5) for a berth in the Sweet 16 on Sunday at 8:40 p.m. The game is a rematch from last year’s round of 32, won by the Musketeers.
“They weren’t going to fold,” forward Mfiondu Kabengele said. “They weren’t going to give up. So we knew we had to minimize their run and maximize ours.”
Kabengele certainly did his part. The redshirt sophomore scored a team-high 14 points, including four straight free-throws, during FSU’s 15-0 run.
P.J. Savoy added 12 points and Phil Cofer chipped in 11 for the Seminoles, who have reached the second round in each of their last four NCAA tournament appearances.
“I thought the quality of our depth gave us a big lift,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “… That really made a big difference and gave us a lot of energy and got everybody involved.”
Indeed, FSU’s first wave of subs helped turn an early deficit into a potential rout. Trailing 7-1 two minutes into the game, Hamilton turned to four reserves – Kabengele, Savoy, Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker – to help turn the tide.
That group, along with Cofer, answered the bell by scoring 11 of the game’s next 14 points and giving the Seminoles a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
Having regained their confidence, the Seminoles were relentless on defense in the first half. They allowed MU to connect on just 5 of 23 field-goal attempts, scored 10 points off of 10 Missouri turnovers and, perhaps most importantly, held Michael Porter Jr., Missouri’s star freshman forward, to just three points.
“The first half, we played tremendously unselfish,” Hamilton said. “We moved the ball, and also we got some deflections and steals that gave us some easier baskets. And I think that gave us some momentum and some confidence, and we were able to go into halftime with a pretty extensive lead that gave us a little cushion that, when they made their run in the second half, we were able to regroup.”
Florida State went into the break leading 42-20 and having scored its most points in the first half of an NCAA tournament game in 20 years.
But Missouri, making its first tournament appearance since 2013, in the second half did everything it could to extend its stay.
The Tigers started their rally with a three-point play from Porter Jr., followed by a triple by Kassius Robertson, a free throw from Jordan Geist and, after a Forrest free throw for FSU, another 3-pointer from Robertson.
In less than two minutes of game time, FSU’s 22-point lead had been cut to 13.
“They were just hitting shots,” Cofer said. “Every team is going to hit shots, no matter what. The one thing we kept saying was, ‘Keep our composure.’”
The Seminoles did that, even as Missouri continued on a 14-4 run, and even as FSU endured a scoreless stretch of more than five minutes.
By then, the score was 50-44 with nearly 10 minutes still left to play.
“We knew they were going to make a run, especially to start the half,” said senior guard Braian Angola, who scored eight points. “After we settled down and knew (the situation), we just did what we had to do.”
That meant making baskets and, more often, making free throws. Cofer hit a pair that put a halt to Missouri’s run, then Angola moments drained two more that put the lead back to double-digits and gave the Seminoles some welcome breathing room.
Then, after a miss from Porter Jr. at the other end, Forrest grabbed a rebound, got down the floor and kicked out to an open Savoy, who made his third 3-pointer of the game.
In the span of 57 seconds, the Seminoles had scored seven points and the threat was all but over.
“Our coach told us to keep our poise,” Savoy said. “It’s not easy to do, but over the course of a long season, you get used to it. Playing in the ACC is no joke.”
That was a common refrain in Florida State’s locker room after the game – that the rigors of ACC play had prepared the Seminoles for a test like the one they faced from Missouri.
Kabengele said that after road trips to Duke, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech, going up against a hostile environment didn’t have much of an impact.
“We played in a lot of loud crowds,” he said. “We’ve been through this.”
Nearly everyone on Florida State’s roster has been through a game against Xavier, too, having seen the Musketeers last year in Orlando.
The Seminoles were asked about their rematch with the Musketeers, and whether chance at revenge might provide any extra motivation.
Turns out that they have much bigger aspirations.
“We’re trying to make a run through the NCAA tournament and to the national title,” Angola said. “Xavier is our next opponent, so we’re going to keep doing what we do and keep moving forward.”