No. 17 Florida State goes to Pitt with ACC title still in sight (Feb 18, 2017)

February 17, 2017

PITTSBURGH -- Finish strong -- and let the chips fall where they may -- is No. 17 Florida State's mantra headed into the final stretch of the regular season.

Then again, that's just about every team's outlook with just two weeks ago before March Madness begins, including the Seminoles' next opponent, Pittsburgh.

Florida State (21-5, 9-4 ACC) and Pitt (14-12, 3-10) clash Saturday at the Petersen Events Center, where the Panthers are coming off a 66-63 loss to Virginia Tech on Tuesday despite leading by 11 points to start the second half.

The Seminoles, meanwhile, enter the game rested and ready to make a final charge toward the regular-season ACC title and one of two top seeds in the upcoming ACC Tournament.

Florida State is second place in the conference standings with five regular-season games remaining. The Seminoles are coming back from a full week off -- its longest break of the year -- since it last played at Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish, however, sent the Seminoles home licking their wounds after handling them 84-72 last Saturday, giving Florida State its fifth loss of the season -- all on the road.

But a win over Pitt would give the Seminoles' their 10th ACC victory and put them in striking distance of first-place North Carolina. And the opportunity that awaits Florida State on Saturday is not lost on its coach Leonard Hamilton.

"It's not a small accomplishment to finish a league as tough as the ACC at the top," said Hamilton, who has won ACC regular-season titles only twice in his 15 years at Florida State and still has never won the ACC Tournament. "You cherish that."

Hamilton and the Seminoles certainly don't want to see those chances at a third conference championship derailed against a struggling team like Pitt, which comes into Saturday having lost 11 of its last 14 games.

Sure, the Panthers have two of the ACC's top scorers in forward Jamel Young, who is averaging an ACC-best 20.6 points per game, and fellow forward Michael Artis, who is averaging just below that at 19.7 points and ranks third in the conference in scoring.

But Florida State's size, speed and depth have worn down far more talented programs already this year thanks to the Seminoles' two potential NBA Lottery picks next year, guard Dwayne Bacon and forward Jonathan Isaac.

Bacon, a finalist for the Julis Erving Award, leads Florida State at 17.4 points per game, followed by Isaac, who is turning in a near double-double numbers every game with 12.4 points and a team-high 7.7 rebounds. And the duo has been dynamic for the Seminoles.

"Those two road games we lost (earlier this month against Georgia Tech and Syracuse) we got away from our identity a little bit, and that's defending," Isaac said. "We've really made a strong point to get back to our roots, and that's what we call our 'Junkyard Defense.'"

The Panthers will need plenty of defense to slow down the talented Seminoles after blowing a double-digit lead earlier this week in the loss to Virginia Tech. The defeat all but ended their NCAA Tournament hopes -- barring an at-large bid by winning the ACC Tournament -- and left head coach Kevin Stallings fuming about his team's effort.

Especially on defense.

Asked if Pitt simply "got tired" in the second half against the Hokies, Stallings replied, "They didn't play hard enough to get tired."

Stallings then elaborated on why the loss against Virginia Tech was so crushing with a huge showdown looming against the Seminoles.

"It's happened all season long. Our lack of on-court direction really showed, I thought, as the game went down the stretch tonight and it was a lack of a guy out there that can run the show and can get people organized," Stallings said, calling out his team leaders. "I can't really explain how you go from one half to another like that, and that's happened on several occasions this year. It just doesn't make any sense."

Pitt is 1-5 this season against Top 25 opponents, but one number is in its favor coming into Saturday: The Panthers have owned the Seminoles in their all-time series, going 11-3 -- including a win in their last meeting and a 6-1 record against Florida State in Pittsburgh.

That could be problematic for the Seminoles and their finish-strong mantra, considering three of their final five games are on the road and the Seminoles are 2-4 in ACC play away from Tallahassee this season.

After Saturday, Florida State turns around and plays two days later on Monday at home against Clemson.

Pitt's final regular-season stretch includes one at home and three on the road, including its next game Tuesday at Wake Forest.