After the Jackets looked like they had found their stride in wins over Kentucky and Nebraska in a lineup with 6-foot-9 forward Moses Wright at the post, they looked off their game early against Florida State, perhaps initially unable to handle the Seminoles’ size and defensive pressure. Where Wright was Tech’s tallest player, Florida State countered with 7-2 center Balsa Koprivica, 6-foot-8 forward Raiquan Gray and the 6-9 Barnes in coach Leonard Hamilton’s starting five.
Tech turned the ball over nine times in the first half – it had a total of 15 turnovers in the previous 80 minutes – and six times in the first 6:07, including a number that seemed careless.
In the first half, “it was just tough for us to get into the offense,” said guard Michael Devoe, who scored a team-high 21 points to go with four rebounds.
The size disparity may have been a problem for Wright, who came into the game averaging 21.3 points and 9.8 rebounds but scored 12 points with two rebounds Tuesday. He didn’t score his first basket until 12:17 remained in the second half.
“Moses has been really good, and he didn’t force the issues on anything (Tuesday),” Pastner said. “He was solid, but we need Moses to be at a high level, but we also didn’t get him a lot of touches.”
Two days after announcing that he had assigned big men Rodney Howard and Saba Gigiberia to what he called a “redshirt” program and essentially committed the team to a small-ball lineup, Pastner seemed to have second thoughts about that plan after the game.
“I did think at times we were small,” Pastner said. “We’ll have to look at that. When you’re playing some different teams in the league that are bigger like that, you can be small, but you’re going to have to make shots to negate the size disadvantage.”
The Jackets fought uphill most of the way. Giving away chances, the Jackets fell behind 18-8 early before strong play from guard Jordan Usher enabled them to catch FSU at 22 on a 3-pointer by Devoe following smart passes from Wright and Usher. However, the Seminoles closed the half with a perimeter shooting barrage to go up 36-29 at the half.
FSU built the lead to 51-35 at the 13:00 mark. Hamilton took Barnes out shortly after, and the Jackets fought their way back in again, turning defensive stops into transition baskets at the other end. A Devoe 3-pointer and a slash to the basket by guard Kyle Sturdivant for a conventional 3-point on successive possessions were among the highlights. Tech got as close as 51-50 on a pair of Wright free throws with 9:58 left. Barnes returned to the game and restored order.
“The way we came out in the second half and how we fought back, that’s the type of team we need to be all the time,” Devoe said.
Usher had 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting (2-for-4 from 3-point range), four rebounds, three assists, three steals and one block against three turnovers.
“He gave us a good spark, and as long as he continues to stay within the frameworks and stays solid, he’s a really good player for us,” Pastner said.
Tech had a last shot as the Seminoles began to pull away again. With Tech down 59-53 with 6:04 left, Devoe lined up a wide-open 3 from the corner on a pass from Sturdivant, but missed. On the next possession, FSU moved the ball effectively to get an open 3-point try for guard M.J. Walker. The Jonesboro High grad knocked it down, part of his 14-point contribution. The Seminoles’ lead was never smaller than seven points the rest of the way.
“That stretch was huge because (if) Mike hits 3, it stays a one-possession game,” Pastner said. “But that was a six-point swing and that was the difference in the game right there.”