Charleston Southern battled back from down 14 points early in the second half to close within five with 1:20 remaining, but Florida State held on for a 67-59 win at the Tucker Center on Monday night.
CSU (5-7) forced four late turnovers to trim a 12-point deficit down to 61-56 on a Saah Nimley free throw. FSU (9-3) received a dunk from 7'3" center Boris Bojanovsky on its next possession, though, and was able to escape with the victory.
Juniors Paul Gombwer and Arlon Harper led the Bucs with 11 points apiece. Florida State was paced by 19 points from sophomore Aaron Thomas, while Ian Miller added 15.
The Bucs played valiantly against a big and athletic Florida State team on the outskirts of the Top 25, forcing 14 turnovers while mostly holding their own on the glass. CSU jumped out to a 6-0 lead on two Gombwer threes in the opening 1:11 of the game, and trailed 30-22 at halftime and by double figures for most of the second half before staging a late rally.
"They're a very difficult team to guard," CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh said of an FSU team featuring a 6'7" guard, two 6'9" forwards and the 7'3" Bojanovsky in its staring lineup. "Their size is astounding. I've never seen size like that on a college team, and they utilize it very well. With that being said, I thought our team played valiantly. We played with a tremendous amount of courage and executed our game plan almost to perfection. It was a six-point game with a couple minutes to go. We were right in there and just didn't make a couple of plays late."
FSU appeared to be in control when Thomas threw down a two-handed dunk in transition for a 56-42 lead at the 6:04 mark of the second half. CSU would not go away easily, however, as six free throws by Sheldon Strickland, Gombwer and Matt Kennedy kept the Bucs within ten points at the final media timeout.
The Bucs' trapping full court press wreaked havoc over the next several minutes, forcing four turnovers and putting a scare into the Seminoles. CSU freshman Ty'Quan Bitting capitalized on the first miscue with a two-hand slam follow off a miss by Harper. Harper grabbed a steal on the ensuing possession and went coast to coast for a layup to suddenly make the score 58-52 with 3:21 left.
CSU had the ball with a chance to come closer following a Miller travel, but Will Saunders misfired on a three and FSU's Devon Bookert negated an offensive rebound by securing a steal.
After Florida State built its lead back up to nine with 1:58 left, Harper and Alhaji Fullah answered with three free throws thanks to an offensive rebound. Nimley chipped in another to close the gap to 61-56, before Florida State scrapped its way to the win.
"I'm really proud of the effort our guys gave tonight," Radebaugh said. "They were on the floor seven, eight, ten times. We've played the 40th toughest schedule in the country. We were right in there with Baylor and then we were right there in a two or four point game at Alabama in the second half. We've been there, unfortunately we haven't gotten over the hump in one of these games. We've been just a few plays away. I thought our guys played with tremendous toughness against a monster of a team."
CSU entered the game leading the country in made threes per game, and Gombwer sparked the Bucs from downtown at the outset. He hit a three from each wing to open the scoring and quickly give CSU a 6-0 lead. FSU responded with a 10-0 run to move in front, but the Bucs answered right back with a layup from Bitting and a Harper trey to push ahead, 11-10.
Much of the first half was nip and tuck, with a Kennedy triple cutting the Florida State lead to 18-17 with 6:15 left until intermission. FSU ripped off a quick 8-0 spurt to take its largest lead of the first half and took an eight-point advantage into halftime by scoring the final four points of the stanza after Gombwer's third three.
CSU is back in action Monday, January 6 at the Buc Dome, as it plays host to Columbia International at 6 p.m. Big South Conference play begins on January 8, when rival Coastal Carolina makes the trip to CSU.