ORLANDO – Just a few minutes into Florida State’s game against Xavier in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Musketeers’ game plan was startlingly clear:
Shoot a bushel of 3-pointers and make the Seminoles do the same.
Unfortunately for FSU, that plan worked to ruthless perfection.
Thanks to a sharp offense and a blistering shooting performance, 11th-seeded Xavier beat No. 3-seed FSU, 91-66, Saturday at the Amway Center to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Musketeers, who came into the game ranked 220th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (34.2), made 11 of 17 (64.7 percent) from beyond the arc against the Seminoles.
FSU, meanwhile, was as cold from deep as Xavier was hot. The Seminoles made just 4 of 21 3-point attempts and were 6 of 34 (17.6 percent) from distance in their two games at the NCAA tournament.
“The difference of the game was that they shot exceptionally well from the 3 and we shot exceptionally poorly. I thought that was the equalizer,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Most of the time, teams will shoot what they normally shoot, from a percentage standpoint.”
If Xavier had done that, then the Seminoles might be the ones headed to San Jose, Calif., for the Sweet Sixteen.
Instead, the experienced Musketeers knifed the ball through Florida State’s defense, often making an extra pass to find an open shooter at the perimeter.
Xavier missed its first 3-point attempt, then proceeded to make its next five, with five different players dealing the damage.
“It was tough,” said Dwayne Bacon, who led the Seminoles with 20 points and five rebounds. “They were making the second or third or fourth extra pass and then it was just a wide open 3. That’s something that you can knock down in your sleep.”
FSU, meanwhile, was the exact opposite. Xavier Rathan-Mayes connected from 3-point range to give the Seminoles their first points of the game, seemingly a good omen for a team that had struggled with its 3-point shooting as of late.
After that, though, Florida State’s shooters combined to miss their next 11 attempts from distance.
And with the Musketeers committed to a packed-in zone defense that denied FSU’s drives to the interior, the Seminoles felt they had little choice than to try shoot them out of it.
Several of FSU’s 3-point attempts came with a clean look at the basket, and several more appeared good before rimming out.
As the misses added up, Xavier’s lead ballooned to as much as 15 points in the first half.
“If you knock down a couple 3s, then they don’t have the luxury of packing it in like that,” Hamilton said. “They did a very good job with their strategy of rolling the dice and saying they didn’t think we could make enough 3s. And they were right.”
When Florida State mounted its best rally of the game, a 16-5 run that trimmed its deficit to four points late in the first half, Xavier answered with – what else? – a 3-pointer.
“They couldn’t miss,” Rathan-Mayes said.
And as a result, the Seminoles couldn’t rely on the usual pillars that made them so successful this season.
With post touches hard to come by, the Seminoles were out-scored in the paint, 36-26, with centers Michael Ojo, Phil Cofer and Jarquez Smith combining for just two shot attempts.
On the other end, Xavier’s precise passing and gaudy shooting percentage made it difficult for FSU to create turnovers and score in transition.
The Musketeers finished with 20 assists against nine turnovers, and FSU accounted for only two fast-break points.
“Most of the time, we’re able to get deflections and steals to generate offense from our defense,” Hamilton said. “And, tonight, we were not able to generate any offense from our defense because they were very, very precise with the ball. … And that’s to their credit.”
Florida State opened the second half with a 10-point deficit, but, despite a better showing from its offense, could never get much closer.
A seven-minute FSU shooting drought midway through the second period helped Xavier steadily build its lead, and the Musketeers used a 14-6 run over the final few minutes to provide the final margin.
The game brought a difficult end to an otherwise memorable season.
With a final record of 26-9, the Seminoles fell just one win short of matching the school’s all-time mark for victories in a single season.
FSU posted seven wins over ranked opponents, finished tied for second in the brutal Atlantic Coast Conference and matched its highest-ever seeding in the NCAA tournament.
The Seminoles afterward said that they’d one day be able to move past this loss and appreciate what they’ve accomplished over the last six months.
They only wished they didn’t have to do it so soon.
“I’m very happy – and I know Ojo is too,” said Jarquez Smith, one of two seniors playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time. “And as soon as we get over getting out of the tournament, as soon as we get over being sad, we’re going to look back and rejoice over how good we did this year.”