His shooting the last time out was abysmal. And his team was coming off one of its worst overall performances in years.
But Florida State guard Caleb Mills insists that wasn’t his primary motivation Saturday night against visiting Louisville. Nor were the pregame pep talks he received from coaches and teammates, encouraging him to be more aggressive against the Cardinals.
Those thoughts might have been on his mind before the game started. But once the ball was tipped, and especially once the Cardinals raced out to an early five-point lead, Mills’ sole focus was doing whatever he could to help the Seminoles defend their home court.
“I was just coming out to fight,” the redshirt sophomore said. “Good team — coming into our home. We’ve got to protect our home court. I was just lost in the fight.”
Quite the fight he delivered.
After missing his first three shots of the game — on the heels of hitting just 2 of 13 in an embarrassing 22-point loss at Wake Forest — Mills completely took over the rest of the first half.
He scored 23 points before halftime, which was the most by a player in the Tucker Center in more than a decade, and he finished with 27 points en route to a 79-70 Florida State victory.
With the win, FSU improves to 8-5 on the season and 2-2 in the ACC. The Cardinals, who came in leading the conference standings, fell to 10-5 and 4-1.
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Box Score: FSU 79, Louisville 70
Mills did his damage in a number of ways. He slashed inside the paint and scored in traffic, he hit mid-range jumpers, and he even connected on 3 of 5 shots from 3-point range. (Mills came into the game shooting 32.5 percent from that distance.)
“Obviously, Caleb Mills put us on his back in the first half,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He gave us a guy to go to.”
Several players stepped up at different times in the second half, but none came through any bigger than freshman wing Matthew Cleveland. The Atlanta native chipped in 17 points, grabbed five rebounds and hit a huge 3 pointer with about two minutes left, which was the dagger that dealt Louisville its first ACC loss of the season.
The Cardinals had trimmed FSU’s lead from 14 points early in the second half all the way down to two down the stretch. Then after the Seminoles pushed their advantage back to six, Cleveland took a pass from fellow freshman Jalen Warley just as the shot clock was about to expire, and he buried a 3 from the right wing to give FSU a 72-63 lead with 1:59 remaining.
Hamilton was not only impressed by Cleveland’s productivity — the freshman connected on 7 of 8 shots from the field — but by the way he scored those points.
“They were energy baskets,” Hamilton said. “Driving to the basket, getting big rebounds, tip-ins, getting paint touches. His points were very valuable because they were energy points that really, really came at an outstanding time.”
Cleveland, who was very highly rated coming out of high school, ranks third on the team in scoring at 10.5 points per game. But that 3-pointer was only his second of the season.
“That was the cherry on top,” Mills said.
FSU sophomore Caleb Mills soars in for two of his 27 points Saturday against Louisville. (USAToday Sports Images)
Florida State won despite another quiet offensive outing for senior forward Malik Osborne. The team’s second-leading scorer finished with six points on 1-of-6 shooting (he was 4-of-4 from the free-throw line) after scoring just six points in the Wake Forest loss as well.
After Saturday’s game, Hamilton explained that Osborne hasn’t practiced at all this week after sustaining a sprained ankle before the Wake loss; he was wearing a protective boot as recently as Friday.
“His effort, his leadership made a big difference in the game,” Hamilton said, noting that Osborne played 24 minutes, grabbed six rebounds and recorded two steals.
Others contributed as well. Warley and senior guard Anthony Polite had huge baskets down the stretch before Cleveland’s 3-pointer. Polite also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.
Center Naheem McLeod scored five early points and gave the Seminoles a much-needed defensive presence inside. And wings Wyatt Wilkes and John Butler hit some important 3-pointers.
But no one had a bigger impact than Mills, whose previous best output at Florida State was 22 points at Purdue. The shooting guard did score 27 once before as a freshman at Houston, but he hasn’t been quite as assertive in his first season as a Seminole.
“He’s been trying to blend in,” Hamilton said. “He’s trying to play unselfish. He’s trying to give us good leadership. But I think tonight, he sensed that some of the guys were struggling a little bit.”
“I was just lost in the fight,” Mills said more than once. “I was just trying to win.”
Now, he and the Seminoles could have an even bigger task this Tuesday when they play host to rival Miami. The Hurricanes sit atop the ACC standings with a perfect 5-0 record after knocking off No. 2 Duke on Saturday night, 76-74, in Durham, N.C.
“As long as we don’t get too high on this one,” Mills said. “Enjoy it for the night. And we’re 0-0 Tuesday.”
* Mills’ 23 points before halftime was the best half by a player in the Tucker Center since Al Thornton scored 27 in a half against Miami in 2007. Mills hit 9 of 16 shots from the field, 3 of 5 from 3-point range and 6 of 8 from the free-throw line.
* This marked Florida State’s fifth straight win against the Cardinals.
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