TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There were a few departures, some old faces in new places and one major contributor sidelined with an injury.
Still, this year’s Florida State men’s basketball team looks a lot like the one from last year.
Which is to say that the Seminoles are quick and aggressive on offense, both tireless and tall on defense and, perhaps above all else, relentlessly deep.
And, like their predecessors, these Seminoles can lay claim to a lopsided victory over the Florida Gators.
P.J. Savoy scored 20 points on 5-of-7 3-point shooting and Trent Forrest added another 13 as No. 15 Florida State opened its season with an 81-60 rout of rival Florida in front of 11,103 fans at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
FSU’s dominance reflected its recent run of supremacy over the Gators. The Seminoles extended their school-record winning streak against UF to five, and their 21-point margin of victory was their highest in the series since a 74-52 victory in 1969.
“These types of games, early in the year, are very difficult for both teams,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I thought our defense was a little bit better. P.J. gave us some good looks. And we were able to get some deflections and steals and got some easy baskets.”
Hamilton’s point is well taken: The Seminoles had never under Hamilton started a season with an opponent of Florida’s caliber. And while a rivalry game is good for building hype, it’s not necessarily great for a coach’s blood pressure.
By the end of this one, though, Florida’s Mike White was the only coach facing difficult questions about his team.
“I’m a little bit shell-shocked, to be honest,” White said. “I did not see that coming.”
Fair enough, given the speed at which Florida State (1-0) turned what was a close game early in the first half into a full-blown rout.
Leading 10-9 at the 13:27 mark of the first half, the Seminoles used a barrage of jumpers and free throws to build an 11-point lead at halftime. They then continued with a 14-4 run out of the break and then braced themselves for a UF (0-1) rally that never materialized.
Florida State’s lead would balloon to as many as 35 points, threatening a 49-year-old record for margin of victory in the series, before Hamilton emptied his bench and the Gators trimmed their deficit.
“We played a good basketball game tonight, against a good basketball team,” Hamilton said. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Maybe, but the Seminoles at least seem like they’ll be building on a solid foundation.
Staying true to Hamilton’s calling card, FSU proved the quality of its depth by logging minutes for 11 different players. All 11 scored.
Savoy led the way, draining 3-pointers at a 71.4-percent clip to reach his highest point total in nearly two years. But thanks to a sharp, quick-passing offense, the Seminoles were able to create looks for just about everybody.
Sophomore M.J. Walker found his shooting stroke, knocking down two 3-pointers to snap a drought that spanned eight games dating back to last season.
“It felt good, man,” Walker said. “It gave me some momentum.”
Forrest made 3 of 4 from the field, connected on all six of his free throws and also dished five assists.
And Terance Mann quietly flirted with a double-double (nine points, nine rebounds) while grabbing one of FSU’s nine steals.
All told, FSU shot 47.9 from the field, made 11 of 23 3-pointers (47.8 percent) and added 20 points in the paint.
And when the Seminoles weren’t finishing at the basket, they were often headed to the free-throw line, where they finished an eye-popping 24 of 34.
Not bad for a team whose leading scorer from last year – senior forward Phil Cofer – watched from the bench while recovering from a foot injury.
“This was a big game,” Savoy said. “Prepping for it all week. We knew coming in that they were coming in with their best shot, and we had to counter it. All the shots they threw, we countered them.”
“Tonight, I thought that the respect that we have for the University of Florida brought us mentally and emotionally together,” Hamilton added. “Sometimes we had some moments, last year, where we played excellent basketball and we faltered on it.”
Not this time.
With their overwhelming height advantage and what they said was a perfect game plan, the Seminoles frustrated Florida’s offense from the opening tip.
The Gators shot a paltry 24.0 percent from the field in the first half, a figure hindered in large part by the fact that they couldn’t get any looks near the basket.
Florida took 25 shots in the first half, 15 of them were from 3-point range. And as shots continually missed and FSU’s lead steadily grew, the Seminoles could feel their opponent’s frustration mounting.
“Sometimes their head will be down, and you’ll see them arguing with a teammate or stuff like that,” Walker said. “And when you see that, sometimes you feel like you’ve got them.”
“Oh yeah,” Savoy added. “We could tell. We know, probably about when we were up 39-22, that we had them.”