TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When Florida State lost at Pittsburgh to open the season a few months ago, the prevailing wisdom suggested that, disappointing as it was, the setback might turn out to be a net positive.
The early wakeup call sparked the Seminoles to an inspired performance – and a win – their next time out at then-No. 5 Florida and on to one of the best seasons in the program’s history.
Everything that followed FSU’s opener at Pitt suggested that its rematch with the Panthers would look much different. And the No. 8 Seminoles more than made good on that promise with an emphatic, 82-67 victory over Pitt in front of 9,014 fans on a Tuesday night at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
No, it might not quite count as a “revenge” game. But given that the Seminoles had lost two straight and five of seven against Pitt (15-12, 6-10 ACC), it sure felt good to win it.
“We kind of took it personally,” junior guard M.J. Walker said. “I also think that we’re still kind of focused on us. We know what kind of team we are, and we feel like when we’re good mentally and focused on the game plan, we’re unbeatable.”
They’ve been awfully close to it this season. FSU improved to 22-4 (12-3 ACC) ahead of Saturday’s visit to North Carolina State (4 p.m., ACC Network) and won its 21st consecutive home game dating back to January of last year.
Williams has scored in double figures in four of his last five games and has been the Seminoles’ leading scorer in each of those five.
“I’m very proud of him,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I think you’re only seeing him scratch the surface of his potential. I think he’s only going to get better and better and he’s going to make a huge difference for us.”
Hamilton said he was pleased with about 75 percent of the game, but that the remaining 25 percent “concerned” him.
He was likely referring to the game’s opening minutes, when the Seminoles committed five turnovers and fell into an eight-point deficit.
Paced, as usual, by an overwhelming depth advantage, the Seminoles overcame those early jitters, erased that deficit with a 12-0 run and never really looked back.
They led by as many as 22 points in the second half before giving away to reserves and walk-ons as the second half came to a close.
FSU’s bench outscored Pitt’s, 53-15, and the Seminoles enjoyed a plus-13 rebounding advantage.
“They take away everything,” Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel said. “They’re one of the better defensive teams in the country.”
Indeed, after watching the Panthers find some early shooting success, the Seminoles mixed in some zone defenses that seemed to throw Pitt off-balance.
By the time it was over, the Panthers had shot just 37.5 percent from the field (including 3-of-12 from 3-point range) and, were it not for a busy night at the free-throw line, the final score might have been even more lopsided.
“We were able to go zone and kind of keep them out of the lane, force them make tough shots,” Williams said. “I feel like that kind of shook them up a little bit.
And then, man-to-man, the coaches did a great job of preparing us for all of their plays. We kind of knew what was coming. The coaches and players on the bench were calling out the plays before they even started running them.”
Tuesday marked another interesting night for Walker, as well. A little more than 48 hours removed from being elbowed in the lip and suffering a cut that required 12 stitches, Walker was in the lineup Tuesday and contributed seven points, four assists and four rebounds.
Walker started the game with a clear, protective mask over his face. But after missing a pair of free throws – he said after the game that the mask restricted his breathing – Walker ditched the protective apparatus and played the rest of the game without.
A few moments later, he narrowly dodged a high elbow from a Pittsburgh player while challenging for a rebound. The Panther was called for a flagrant 1 foul and, this time, Walker made both free throws.
“When I looked up, (the mask) blocked off my vision,” Walker said, “so I just went ahead and took it off and just kept playing.”
Walker revealed after the game that he had some further complications with his wound, which required a middle-of-the-night visit to the Emergency Room.
But with a little more time to heal and a more intensive treatment plan, Walker showed few effects of his ailment on Saturday. At least not once he took off his mask.
“It’s not easy, fellas, to have an injury like he had,” Hamilton said. “It says a lot about him.”
So, too, did a defensive sequence near the end of the game.
With the Seminoles comfortably ahead late in the second half, a Pittsburgh player took off on a breakaway for what would’ve been an easy – and ultimately inconsequential – dunk.
Walker, though, wasn’t having it. He sprinted down the floor, jumped to meet the player at the basket and swatted away the dunk attempt as the crowd erupted.
Tempers flared (Walker was actually issued a technical foul after flexing on his way down the floor), but there was no mistaking Walker’s message.
“Nothing easy,” Walker said. “It’s just a level of pride for me, I feel like you’ve got to have. I wasn’t trying to hurt the kid or nothing like that, but I’m a competitive person. I have pride for this program. I’m going to make the play when it needs to happen. …
“I think that’s the toughness I need to bring, and it sparks everyone else on the team.”