TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Tony Bennett did all he could to prepare for Florida State, pulling out every scout-teamer and student manager he could find in an effort to replicate the Seminoles’ depth, length and athleticism.
But with his tongue in his cheek, the Virginia coach noted that, if they could do that, none of those people would be scout-teamers and student managers at UVA.
The genuine article turned out to be as good as Bennett feared.
Because on a night when points – or even good looks at the basket – came at a heavy premium, and when one of their top scorers was held to his lowest output in almost two months, the Seminoles got just what they needed from a variety of sources in a 54-50 victory over the Cavaliers.
That Devin Vassell led all scorers with a career-high 18 is hardly a surprise. He’s the Seminoles’ top scorer and a budding superstar.
But Anthony Polite’s big night might raise some eyebrows. The redshirt sophomore scored a career-high 14 points, was a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point range and knocked down a crucial triple that tied the game at 47-47 with 2:27 to play.
That shot snapped a five-minute scoring drought for the Seminoles and sparked a 10-3 FSU run to close the game.
“Anthony exudes confidence,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “…He spends a lot of time in the gym getting shots up, and, when he shoots the ball, I think everyone who sees him (sees) a lot of confidence.”
Florida State’s victory is its eighth consecutive and moves the Seminoles (15-2, 5-1 ACC) into a three-way tie with Duke and Louisville atop the ACC standings. FSU beat Louisville earlier this month and will visit the Blue Devils on February 10.
The Cavaliers (11-5, 3-3 ACC) are reeling after suffering a third consecutive loss for the first time in three years.
Hamilton said he expected a sharp and desperate effort from the defending national champions, and that the Cavaliers did not leave him wanting.
“But,” he added in his next breath, “that’s why I feel so fortunate and pleased that we were able to come away with a victory.”
They did so thanks in large part to dominance near the end of each half.
Twice the Cavaliers held leads late in a period, and twice the Seminoles surged back in resounding fashion.
Trailing 24-20 late in the first half, Polite and Vassell teamed up for an 11-0 run over the final 3:41 that gave the Seminoles a 31-24 lead at the brake.
Along the way, FSU forced six turnovers on UVA’s last seven possessions. The Cavaliers finished the game with 18 turnovers.
“Their pressure bothered us at times,” Bennett said. “Their pace gets you a little frantic and it takes a strong, composed mind and skill level to not get rattled with that.”
Even still, the Cavaliers rallied back in the second half and, holding a three-point with 3:11 to play, seemed to be headed toward a win that might change their fortunes.
A three-point deficit against most teams with that amount of time remaining is typically nothing to worry about.
But against the Cavaliers, who boast the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense and No. 1 field-goal percentage defense, it can be a different story.
UVA had already held the Seminoles off the scoreboard for five minutes of game time and limited them to just one made field goal on their previous five attempts.
And, had Braxton Key finished the layup that would have put the Cavaliers ahead by five, it might have been insurmountable.
Instead, FSU’s Trent Forrest blocked the attempt, grabbed the rebound and hurried down the floor. A few moments later, Polite’s fateful 3-pointer was in the bottom of the net and the Seminoles had turned the tide.
“It’s a shot,” Polite said. “I’ve just got to take it with confidence, and I was able to make it.”
For Forrest, the block was part of a strong sequence in which the senior guard showed all the ways he can impact a game.
Despite shooting 1 of 6, finishing with five points and committing five turnovers, Forrest still managed seven assists, seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
And his tight defense on Virginia’s Kihei Clark just moments after Polite tied the game forced a turnover that gave the ball back to the Seminoles.
Forrest then drew a foul and knocked down two free-throws that gave FSU the lead for good.
“He’s our leader – offensively, defensively,” Vassell said of Forrest. “You could tell he started to get frustrated a little bit, but he didn’t let that affect him on the defensive end.”
In a sense, Forrest’s outing reflected the game as a whole.
It wasn’t necessarily one for the highlight reel – games against the plodding, defensive-minded Cavaliers rarely are – but it still brought about satisfying result.
Never mind the low shooting percentages, extended scoring droughts or 34 combined turnovers.
Hamilton didn’t see any of those things when he looked up at the final scoreboard.
“Some people will say this was not a very pretty game,” Hamilton said. “It’s beautiful to me.”