Stifling defense propels Florida State within one win of the Final Four

When Florida State suffered its sixth loss in nine games 15 days ago in the opening round of the ACC tournament, the Seminoles did not appear to be a team built to last long in March.

All they’ve done since then is proven that theory dead wrong.

A combination of swarming defense and fearsome rim protection carried Florida State to its first Elite Eight in a quarter century on Thursday night. The ninth-seeded Seminoles stifled Gonzaga 75-60 to set up a matchup with third-seeded Michigan on Saturday with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

Gonzaga trimmed a 12-point second-half deficit to four midway through the second half, but the Zags could not generate enough offense to get any closer. A Phil Cofer transition dunk capped a late 8-2 Florida State surge that expanded the gap back to double digits and drained any drama from the game.

Facing a shorthanded Gonzaga team that was without sharpshooting forward Killian Tillie, Florida State took advantage.The Seminoles held the Zags to 34 percent shooting, forced 13 turnovers and time and time again turned defense into offense.

Terance Mann led Florida State with 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting. Five other Seminoles finished with each six points to help the program move within one win of its first Final Four since 1972.

In a chaotic NCAA tournament laden with upsets, Florida State’s Elite Eight run qualifies as one of the biggest surprises. There were few signs the Seminoles were capable of this during a season in which they often lacked consistency and discipline while alternating between marquee wins and head-scratching losses.

Having lost leading scorers Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac and Xavier Rathan-Mayes from last season’s 26-win team, Florida State entered the season projected to finish eighth in the ACC. That proved pretty much spot-on as the Seminoles staggered to a 9-9 record in league play and dropped their first-round ACC tournament game to desperate Louisville.

What Florida State did well during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament was wear down eight-seeded Missouri and top-seeded Xavier with its swarming, aggressive defense, balanced offense and waves of depth. The Seminoles turned turnovers into transition baskets, relentlessly attacked the rim off the dribble and sank just enough 3-pointers to prevent the Tigers and Musketeers from clogging the lane.

That same formula worked against Gonzaga. Now the Seminoles are one win from a Final Four.

Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. (23) shoots against Florida State forward Phil Cofer (0) during the first half of an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)
Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell Jr. (23) shoots against Florida State forward Phil Cofer (0) during the first half of an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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