TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The stretch lasted just six minutes and 15 seconds. But it was easily the best 6:15 of Okaro White’s career.
Florida State trailed Maryland 43-42 on Wednesday night with just less than nine minutes left in the game. But the junior forward then scored the Seminoles’ next 15 points, giving them a six-point lead, as they escaped with a 65-62 road win.
“He was just in that zone that allowed him to be aware of everything that was going on,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “He got put-backs, tip-ins, hit free throws, he was spacing and getting to the right spot when people were penetrating … he was instinctively responding and reacting. Now that he’s a junior, he understands those type of things.”
White finished with 20 points and six blocks, both career highs, and added nine rebounds. His six blocked shots were the most by a Florida State player in more than 12 years.
“I just felt the sense of urgency,” White said. “I would say my confidence is probably at an all-time high since I’ve been at Florida State. The thing is you can’t just have one good game — you have to keep it going.”
White’s career night put the exclamation point on a stunning turnaround for Florida State. The Seminoles had struggled just a week earlier and lost at Auburn on Jan. 2. Florida State was 8-5 in the nonconference season — including ugly losses to South Alabama and Mercer — but with victories at Clemson and Maryland, Hamilton’s club is 10-5 overall and 2-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Now, Florida State prepares for North Carolina (10-5, 0-2 ACC) on Saturday afternoon in Tallahassee. A win for the Seminoles would continue to build the confidence of a young team that includes just two seniors and a handful of juniors.
White was a good player his first two seasons at Florida State, but now he’s developing into his own. At 6-foot-8, he is athletic and defends well. He has moves like a small forward, is agile and is able to drive or shoot from the outside. But he also has the skills of a power forward, with the ability to create points in the low post.
The former Clearwater (Fla.) High standout sees the versatility of his game and embraces the fact that he’s a lot of both.
“I just call myself a forward without any name in front of it right now,” White said. “Eventually, if I’m allowed to take that next step to the NBA, I might be a 3 (small forward). But I still might be a 4 (power forward). It doesn’t matter. Wherever I can be used and have the best opportunity to produce for my team.”
White has been asked to start and contribute more this season … and he is producing.
He is making 50.4 percent of his baskets and is second on the team in points (13.3) and rebounds (6.3) per game. What’s remarkable is that he’s playing just four or five more minutes per game this season and has raised his scoring average by nearly six points.
“I think he’s been playing very good,” Florida State assistant coach Corey Williams said. “His level of play has increased. He continues to give us the effort that we thought he could give when we recruited him. We knew it would get to this point.”
White is at this point because of his hard work over the summer. After starting 25 of 69 games in his first two seasons, White knew he would be counted on after Florida State lost six seniors from a team that won the ACC tournament.
So White spent more time than ever at Florida State’s basketball training complex this offseason, taking 400 to 450 shots per workout. It worked as he’s been more consistent after shooting 47 percent from the floor last season.
White has been a bright spot for Florida State but he realizes there is plenty left for him to improve, including his rebounding skills. He’s 6-8 but just 205 pounds, so he’s often battling inside for rebounds against bigger forwards. While his rebound totals are up slightly, it’s been a challenge.
“I never realized how tough rebounding was,” White said. “It’s just something you have to have a knack for, especially on the offensive rebounding side. You can’t stop on first contact. … Definitely lacking in the rebounding aspect and I’m trying to get back to that.”
While his rebounding is a work in progress, there is no doubting his improved shooting. White has hit double figures in scoring in 12 of 15 games this season. He has shown his post moves but also a more consistent jumper. Plus, he’s already made 17 3-pointers — out of 41 attempts — after knocking down just 11 last season.
“I think Okaro has improved all of his skills,” Hamilton said. “He’s really, really worked hard.”
As a junior, there’s plenty of room to still grow. FSU’s coaches love his defensive skills and say that they are comfortable having him defend almost anyone, from point guards to power forwards. And he now has the outside shooting accuracy to complement his post moves.
“I think that’s a big asset for him because he’s not one-dimensional,” Williams said. “You have a 4-man that can play a little 3, shoot from the perimeter, can post you up or use his quickness. I think that makes it difficult for people to guard. As he gets stronger, understands the game a little bit clearer, he has made leaps and jumps.”