At least for the first few minutes, Phil Cofer looked like his old self again.
Making his first start and third appearance of the season after missing Florida State’s first nine games with a right foot injury, the senior forward scored FSU’s first 12 points to lead the No. 9 Seminoles (12-1) to an 87-76 win over Winthrop Tuesday.
With a crowd of 7,237 fans inside the Tucker Civic Center watching FSU’s first New Year’s Day game since 1958, Cofer looked by far the best he has since returning.
After he scored a combined seven points in 22 minutes in his first two games back, Cofer posted 14 points with two rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes Tuesday.
“I was pleased. I hadn’t planned to use him that much, but he’s showing that’s getting some of the rust off,” FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton said.
“We’ve got to be careful not to overdo it with him this early in the season.”
He scored 12 of his 14 points over the opening 3:45 of the game and made his first four shots, three of which were three-pointers.
“Phil prepared really well, completing his rehab, getting exercise, getting accustomed to what we play right now,” sophomore forward Mfiondu Kabengele said.
“To see him establish himself really early in the game, it made me really happy to see him go out like that.”
While much of Winthrop’s identity this season has been three-point shooting — the Eagles entered Tuesday’s game second in the nation with 13.3 made threes per game — FSU made it a point to not let the Eagles beat them from outside the arc.
Winthrop shot 26.1 percent from three, but instead found success inside the arc.
The Eagles used just two players taller than 6-foot-6, but hit 63.8 percent of their two-pointers and finished with 42 points in the paint against a much-bigger FSU team which also had 42 points in the paint.
This allowed Winthrop to keep the game close throughout. After a closely-contested first half, FSU ended the first half on a 17-5 run to open up a 52-36 halftime lead.
Asked about what stands out as the strength of this FSU team, Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey said, “They’re like Noah’s Ark. They’ve got two of everything.”
The Eagles responded with a run of their own in the second half to cut the deficit to one score on five separate occasions over the final 12:13, but were never able to break all the way even.
With the victory, FSU is off to a 12-1 start for just the fourth time in program history.
“The most positive thing I can say is that we can feel good (about) the fact that we’re 12-1 and I really believe we still have a lot of upside for this team to go,” Hamilton said.
What We Learned
Mann, that’s efficient
While Cofer dominated the early minutes, senior guard Terance Mann took over the scoring down the stretch when the Seminoles needed it most.
He scored 14 of his game-high 22 points in the second half and finished 10 of 11 (90.9 percent) from the floor, tying his career-high with two made three-pointers on three attempts.
In true Mann fashion, he stuffed the stat sheet beyond just points. He also added seven rebounds (four offensive), two assists, two blocks and a steal in 35 minutes of action.
Protecting the basketball
While FSU has been an impressive team in many phases this season, one major area they’ve been lacking is in ball security.
The Seminoles entered Tuesday averaging 15.7 turnovers per game, dead last in the ACC and tied for 308 out of 351 Division-I programs.
It may have only been one game, but there was progress in this regard against Winthrop as FSU finished the first half with only four turnovers.
This fell off somewhat after halftime as the Seminoles finished with 11 total turnovers, but it was a glimpse of improvement with ACC play looming.
Redshirt freshman Anthony Polite has proven himself to be quite the defender and steal generator over FSU’s last two games.
After amassing four steals in FSU’s previous game against Saint Louis, Polite finished the Winthrop game with three steals.
Two of these came on a pair of crucial consecutive possessions immediately after the Eagles had cut the lead to two points halfway through the second half and aided his ability to score six consecutive points to push the lead back to eight points.
“He gave us a lot of energy on the defensive end,” senior guard Terance Mann said of Polite.
As a team, the Seminoles finished with a season-high 13 steals.
With the win, the Seminoles close out non-conference play with one loss for the third consecutive season.
They begin ACC play on the road Saturday at No. 2 Virginia (12-0) and then welcome Miami (8-4) for their home ACC opener on Wednesday, Jan. 9 at 9 p.m.
No. 9 Florida State at No. 2 Virginia
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, Virginia
TV/Radio: ESPN2/103.1 FM