TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (seminoles.com)– At the end of a week of high-profile upsets and near-upsets across the college basketball landscape, the Florida State Seminoles had a close call of their own on Friday night.
But it was only that.
M.J. Walker scored 17 of his 18 points in the second half and freshman Patrick Williams added another 18 – including the go-ahead, three-point play with 45 seconds left – as the Seminoles erased a 17-point deficit and escaped with a 79-74 victory over Western Carolina in their home opener at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
“It was a good test for us,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We’re a team that’s still trying to find ourselves. …
“My takeaway from this game is that we have the potential to be a pretty good basketball team. We’re a little inconsistent. We’ve got a long ways to go. We’ve just got to keep getting better and better.”
The Seminoles, winners of 33 consecutive non-conference games at home, will next host Chattanooga on Wedensday.
They’ll do so with a 2-1 record thanks in large part to Walker and Williams, who accounted for 26 of FSU’s 43 second-half points.
Walker sparked the Seminoles’ rally with three 3-point shots, including back-to-back triples midway through the second half that cut the deficit to four.
And Williams, a highly-regarded freshman, might have had something of a coming of age moment in his third collegiate game.
A former prep All-American, the 6-8, 225-pound forward scored nine of FSU’s final 11 points, a run which includes three tough finishes at the basket, a free throw that gave the Seminoles the lead, and another pair of high-pressure free throws that stretched their advantage to three points.
Williams finished 5-of-8 from the floor and 7-of-7 at the free throw line in reaching double figures for the first time in his career.
“Each one of those free-throws, we needed,” Hamilton said. “He’s maturing. He’s adjusting to playing at this particular level.”
“It’s big-time, seeing him step up,” added senior Trent Forrest, who had 16 points. “That’s probably his first time being in that environment like that, so it was definitely good for us and good for him to be able to come through for us.”
Had he not, the Seminoles might have been headed for a headlines-making defeat, like the one No. 1 Kentucky suffered at the hands of Evansville earlier this week.
Instead, they’ll chalk it up as a valuable, early-season lesson that ended in the right result.
“We definitely saw what was happening around the country,” Forrest said. “It was big for us. We needed this win to kind of solidify ourselves to be a good team.”
Thanks to hot 3-point shooting and a heroic effort from guard Mason Faulkner, the Catamounts embarked on a 34-10 run that led to a startling 38-21 lead late in the first half.
Western Carolina made 7-of-14 3-pointers in the first half, while Faulkner, a graduate transfer from Northern Kentucky, made seemingly everything else. He finished with a game-high 21 points and seven assists.
Threatened with an early-season stumble, the Seminoles switched things up and methodically crawled their way back into the game.
It started with an effort to get to the rim, where FSU enjoyed a decided size advantage (Western Carolina’s tallest player is 6-foot-9). And when the Seminoles weren’t finishing at the basket, they were typically drawing contact.
FSU made 14-of-18 free throws in the first half, 11 of which came in the last 5:50.
That provided the Seminoles a manageable, seven-point deficit at halftime, and, although it took a little while longer than they might have preferred, they eventually reclaimed the lead and didn’t give it back.
“I don’t ever want to be down 17 points,” Hamilton said. “But I didn’t see any panic in our guys. I thought they maintained their composure. I thought they stayed focused. And that was a positive sign.”
So, too, was an offensive outburst from Walker, who had his highest scoring output since January 27 at Miami last season.
That much of his production came from the perimeter didn’t hurt, either. Walker’s three 3-pointers were his most in 11 games dating back to last season, and the junior guard added four assists, two rebounds and a block, too.
“It felt good,” Walker said. “My teammates put me in good position to get that. I told them I was feeling it, and I just want to thank them for giving the opportunity to take those shots.
“It gave us a good run, and it’s a game of runs. And it helped us tonight.”