The VSU men’s basketball team got their first dose of in-game experience Sunday in an exhibition against Division I competition in the Florida State Seminoles.
The Atlantic Coast Conference power defeated the Blazers 90-67 thanks to second-half swoon that saw the Seminoles outscore the Blazers 54-38.
The exhibition pitted two longtime head coaches against each other. Blazers head coach Mike Helfer is entering his 19th year at the helm, while Seminoles head coach Leonard Hamilton is entering his 23rd season in Tallahassee.
The Blazers traded baskets with the Noles throughout the first 20 minutes. In fact, the Blazers outshot the Seminoles, shooting 40.6% from the floor (13-32) compared to 30.8% (12-39). Still, a late run from the Noles gave them a 36-29 lead at the break.
“I told our guys at halftime that it was two made threes that were the difference in that first half,” Helfer said. “We played with them for 20 minutes, and I think everybody here said, ‘Yeah, they played right with them.’”
FSU’s size and talent advantage took over the second half as the game turned into a rout. The Noles led by as much as 33 midway through the second half.
The Seminoles were hot coming out of the locker room, starting off the second half going 11 of 15 from the floor and shooting 60% behind the arc. The Blazers were unable to keep pace, starting of 5 of 12 from the floor with just a 20% clip from three.
“Second half, we came out and missed a few shots,” Helfer said. “They made a few shots and then just got kind of like a snowball going downhill. So, for us, we’re not going to hang our head. It’s an exhibition game. We’re going to take the positives and try to improve on that.”
The Blazers had four players reach double digits in scoring. LaTrell Tate, a graduate transfer from West Florida, led the Blazers with 15 points and four assists.
First Taste of D1 Basketball
For many VSU players, Sunday was their first experience of playing in a Division I arena against a Division I team.
After all, it’s not often that the Blazers and the Seminoles play each other in sports. Despite being separated by just 73 miles, Sunday was their first matchup on the court since 2018 and fourth overall matchup.
“We are thankful to Coach Hamilton for letting us come over here and play,” Helfer said. “There’s not a lot of sports at Valdosta State that can play Florida State or that can make it work, and basketball is one of them. We’re appreciative to come over here.”
Junior forward Caden Boser, who finished with 12 points on 4 of 8 shooting, is one of two players who have previously played at the Division I level. Before wearing the red and black, Boser played for the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Boser said that the exhibition offered the team a good chance to compare themselves to a higher-caliber opponent like FSU.
“It’s always fun as a D2 team to play a high-major D1 team,” Boser said. “That’s a great opportunity to kind of know where you stand, figure out what you got to be better at, and just kind of get that comparison, comparing yourself to a team like Florida State, so I think we learned a lot.”
Confidence is Key
With the Blazers facing an uphill battle before the game even began, Helfer was nervous about how his team would perform against a high-level opponent.
Helfer couldn’t have been more pleased.
“For us, it was important to get a good start,” Helfer said. “You come into these games, and your guys are going to be nervous because they’re ACC players and we’re nervous. I thought our guys started the game well. I thought we were good defensively. I thought we were physical. We just didn’t make shots, and eventually that caught us.”
Hamilton shared similar thoughts, believing the Blazers played with a lot of confidence throughout the game.
“When you play Division II schools, they’re always quick and fast,” Hamilton said. “They’re always going to have some guys that you can’t leave open. Most of those times, we look bigger and stronger, but they challenge you like some of the teams we’d be playing with the quickness and speed. This team played with a tremendous amount of confidence. They played with no fear. I thought that what happened during the course of the game, our rotation in the second half kind of wore them down. They were playing hard. …They fought right to the very end.”
Heart Over Height
The Blazers didn’t back down from the challenge of facing a tall lineup in the Seminoles.
The Noles traditionally have been tall and this year’s squad is no exception, boasting an average player height of 6-foot-10. While shaking hands with FSU players, Helfer had to tilt his head back to look them in the eyes.
The height difference didn’t deter the Blazers on the glass, though. The Blazers outrebounded the Seminoles 44-42.
“I thought our big guys played good,” Helfer said. “I think our guys have some wide strength, but we’ve got some big, strong guys. If we can outrebound teams and win the turnover battle, we’re going to have an incredible season.”
The Turnover Plague
While the Blazers were fairly productive throughout the game, a barrage of turnovers shaped the outcome of the game.
The Blazers finished with 27 turnovers on the game, more than double the Seminoles. That led to the Noles scoring 29 points off turnovers.
FSU was disruptive in the passing lanes throughout the game, racking up 20 steals.
Boser credited FSU’s length for their success at forcing turnovers.
“They’re so long, and, compared to our level, we don’t play that a lot,” Boser said. “There’s not teams as long and as athletic as them, and their anticipation is great. We kind of got to build on that. We worked on getting open, but we got to be better at getting open and being able to take care of the ball a little bit better.”
Helfer took it a step further and acknowledged the Seminoles’ awareness in the passing lanes.
“You think the pass is there. They know the pass is not there,” Helfer said. “It really bothered us. Obviously, we saw that, and we could clean the up. Obviously, going against a Division II team, it won’t be as drastic as that when denial is relentless.”
Close to Home
It was a full-circle moment for Helfer, who regularly attends FSU games with his family.
“We come to the games,” Helfer said. “My kids were driving over here today, and they were like ‘Dad, we get to sit on the seats today.’”
Additionally, Helfer tipped his hat to Hamilton and the FSU program.
“I like Florida State basketball,” Helfer said. “I like how they do it. I like their guys. I like their coaching staff. … They do it the right way, and they’ve been successful. I know they had a tough year last year, but they do it the right way and that’s why I like them so much.”
The Blazers will open their season in Atlanta on Nov. 10-11 in the Gulf South Conference/Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Challenge. The Blazers will first play Fort Valley State on Nov. 10 and round out the challenge against Clark Atlanta on Nov. 11, with both games set to tip off at 6 p.m.
Written by Austin Bruce, Co-Editor in Chief. Photo courtesy of Austin Bruce.
Jack Calhoun IV, Sports Editor, also contributed to this report.