TALLAHASSEE – It took nearly 30 minutes for the 18th-ranked Florida State men to finally gain separation from Georgia Tech in Tuesday’s New Year’s Eve matinee at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
In a match-up of suffocating defenses, preventing either team from opening up a lead of more than five points, the Noles seized control by outscoring the Yellow Jackets 22-13 over the final 10 minutes for a 70-58 victory.
FSU led 48-45 when Anthony Polite drew a flagrant foul from Jordan Usher on a drive to the basket. Polite sank both free throws and RaiQuan Gray’s driving reverse layup off the ensuing inbounds pass put the Noles in front 52-45 with 9:50 remaining. Devin Vassell’s slam of a Trent Forrest lob and Patrick Williams’ soft baseline jumper pushed the lead to nine and the Yellow Jackets never recovered.
Vassell led a balanced attack with 14 points and Williams added 12 to lead the Noles (12-2, 2-1 ACC), who won their 15th consecutive home game and head to No. 7 Louisville on Saturday.
“We emphasize closing out the game; closing out any game,” said Vassell, who grew up a Georgia Tech fan. “We go through a lot of situations in practice…We were prepared and ready for the moment.”
For a good portion of the game, neither team appeared ready or capable of seizing the moment.
“A couple years ago when I had kidney stones and we had to play against North Carolina, that’s what it felt like,” joked FSU coach Leonard Hamilton. “It was about as painful.”
The Noles got through those by solving Georgia Tech’s match-up zone by moving the basketball, especially over the final 10 minutes.
“I think we made 275 passes and we normally try to make about 240,” Hamilton added. “We moved the ball and their match-up zone defense created situations where we had to move the ball in order to find high percentage shots.
“There were periods late in the second half where I thought our guys were really locked in. They executed, got some stops and made some energy plays.”
FSU had plenty of positives moments, to wit:
• FSU came away with 11 steals, marking the eighth time in 14 games the ACC-leading Noles have reached double-figures in steals;
• Eight of the Noles’ nine blocked shots came in the first half as FSU matched its second-highest total of the season;
• Six players contributed at least seven points, which was even more important given the absence of guard M.J. Walker with a sore hip;
• The Noles had only 12 turnovers – just three in the second half – while forcing 20, which they converted into 14 points.
And with the game on the line FSU’s defense locked down Georgia Tech (6-7, 1-2) as the Yellow Jackets missed six of their final seven shots from the floor with their last field goal coming with 2:42 to play.
“That just shows the character that we have on our team, to be able to persevere through the tough times, and the confidence that Coach Hamilton has is us to go out and play to our ability,” Vassell said. “We were just relying on each other and making big plays.”
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner lamented a run of missed dunks, transition layups and errant, open 3-pointers when the outcome was still hanging in the balance. The Jackets trailed by two points (47-45) with 10:54 to go after Jose Alvarado’s layup but would get no closer.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Pastner said. “In a game like this, especially on the road in the ACC, you can’t give away those type of possessions.”
Michael Devoe led the Jackets with 19 points on the strength of 6-of-8 3-point shooting.
Dominik Olejniczak added nine points a, while Polite and Forrest added eight each for the Noles. Malik Osborne finished with seven, all of which came over the final 12 minutes.
“I really like how everybody really contributed in a really, really big way,” Olejniczak said. “That’s a good time to have that. We have 11 guys and if everybody can contribute, you’re not going to be able to stop that.”
“That’s what happens when the quality of your depth is involved as much as it was,” Hamilton added. “Our guys were a little fresher in that tough period when we were able to break the game open.”
The Noles led 31-29 at the half with Nathanael Jack’s runner providing the cushion.
Neither team led by more than four points over the first 20 minutes as the respective defenses set the tone. The Noles and Jackets combined for 21 turnovers in the half and at one point – 15 minutes into the game – FSU had more blocked shots (eight) than Georgia Tech had field goals.
Olejniczak, returning from a one-game absence due to illness, scored seven points as the Seminole reserves outscored the Jackets’ bench 16-3 in the half. Olejniczak’s contributions were further enhanced when fellow big man Balsa Koprivica went down hard after a made basket at the 13:57 mark of the first half. Koprivica added a free throw to complete the three-point play for an 11-8 lead, but hobbled off the court and did not return.