TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It might be in the next few hours, or it might not be until tomorrow morning.
But sometime soon, M.J. Walker is going to find that his lower lip is awfully sore.
For now, though, he’s all smiles. Even if that smile is a little swollen.
Despite missing about 20 minutes of game time to get 12 stitches in that lip, Walker scored 16 points that helped No. 8 Florida State to a 70-67 win over Syracuse on Saturday afternoon at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
Walker, who had scored nine points before his injury and seven more after his return, was 5-of-9 from the 3-point line, and his four-point play with 2:36 to go in the second half helped turn the game FSU’s way after a late Syracuse surge.
“I can’t say enough about M.J.,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “To get a cut like he got, and 12 stitches is an awful lot of stitches to have to recover from. You have to get an awful lot of shots.
“For him to come back out and represent his team in that fashion with no fear, with a lot of confidence and aggressiveness says a lot about his will, his desire and toughness and, more than anything else, the culture that we’ve been able to develop, that he wanted to get in there and help his team.”
Freshman Patrick Williams scored 17 point and senior Trent Forrest added 13 for the Seminoles, who won their 20th consecutive home game despite playing without leading scorer Devin Vassell.
Vassell warmed up and watched the game from the bench, but Hamilton declined to comment on the sophomore’s status or whether he’d be available when FSU hosts Pittsburgh on Tuesday (8 p.m., ACC Network).
As usual, FSU’s depth more than made up for the absence. The Florida State bench outscored Syracuse’s by 28 points and all 10 Seminoles who played scored at least two points.
The Orange, meanwhile, had four players log at least 32 minutes.
“We talk to the (reserves) all the time about staying ready, staying in the gym, getting your reps in,” Forrest said. “Those guys do a good job. To have (41) points from the bench, I mean, that’s big-time for us.”
Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes (25 points) and Joseph Girard III (22) did enough to give the Seminoles a scare, but FSU mitigated their damage by holding Buddy Boeheim, the Orange’s second-leading scorer and one of the country’s top 3-point shooters, off the scoreboard entirely.
Boeheim, who came into the contest averaging more than 16 points per game, finished 0-for-7 from the field and 0-for-3 from 3-point range.
“The respect we have for what he’s capable of doing is the reason why we gave him a tremendous amount of attention,” Hamilton said. “Very seldom do you see a guy who’s going out and getting 18 straight points in an ACC game (which Boeheim did against Virginia Tech last month). That gets your attention.
“The fact that we were able to win by 3, another typical ACC blowout, and one of their top players didn’t score as well as he is normally capable of scoring, says a lot about how important the defensive job that we did on him was.”
Hamilton is right. Because despite Walker’s heroics, FSU’s dominant depth and a healthy advantage at the 3-point line (11 for FSU, 7 for Syracuse), the Seminoles still found themselves – and their home winning streak – threatened down the stretch.
FSU led by as many as 11 midway through the second half, but a 24-9 Syracuse run, aided by a field-goal drought of more than five minutes for the Seminoles, helped the Orange to a 68-64 lead with 3:49 to play.
But, as they’ve done often over the last several months, the Seminoles made the needed plays when it mattered most.
It started when Dominik Olejniczak grabbed a defensive rebound from a shot that could’ve stretched the Orange’s lead even further.
And continued when guard Anthony Polite made a pair of free throws.
Then, following a Syracuse bucket at the other end, Walker made his biggest contribution – a 3-pointer from the elbow while drawing contact from his defender.
Walker made his free throw and, in an instant, had turned a three-point deficit into a one-point lead.
All while still shaking the effects from those numbing agents and the stitches in his mouth,
“The doctors did a good job,” Walker said. “I kept asking them, ‘Are we winning? Are we winning?’ I was hearing the crowd get hyped, and then I’d hear it get dull for a minute. So I was trying to see what was going on. But they did a good job of keeping me updated.
“And I was happy to get back out there.”
From there, the Seminoles gained a small bit of separation after Hughes missed a layup and then made four free-throws in the final seconds that made the lead stick.
Hughes threw up one more 3-pointer as the clock expired – a shot that went a lot closer to the basket than it probably should have – but it missed and the Seminoles celebrated.
Hamilton said that he intended for one of his players to foul Hughes and deny the 3-point opportunity, but that they were cautious about fouling him and sending him to the free-throw line.
“He was smart with it, because he knew we were coming to foul,” Forrest said. “We would come at him and then he would start getting ready to pick the ball up. So you kind of had to take one or the other. We kind of forced him into – I wouldn’t say a bad shot – but we were lucky and got the miss.”