As South Alabama's team bus headed east on Interstate 10 toward Tallahassee on Friday morning, Jaguars coach Ronnie Arrow had a conversation with guard Antoine Allen that made him feel better about his team's chances of upsetting Florida State that night.
"He told me on the way up here, 'We're going to beat 'em,'" Arrow said. "He didn't look like he was kidding. He said it from the heart. He looked me in the eyes and said, 'Me and my guys are going to go in there and beat them.'"
Allen's pregame promise wasn't just all talk either. The Miami transfer scored a game-high 21 points to propel the Jaguars to the opening weekend's biggest upset, a 76-71 road win over a Florida State team that was ranked in both polls and expects to again contend in the ACC.
Although South Alabama has beaten major conference teams in the past under Arrow and Florida State has struggled with inconsistency in the non-league season, this upset was especially surprising because of what happened the last time the programs met. The Seminoles were very rude hosts last November, flexing their defensive muscle and pounding the Jaguars 80-39.
"If you recruit winners and they get their face slapped, they're going to come back and bow up," Arrow said. "A lot of times your guys say, 'Oh yeah, we're going to win, we're going to win,' but how much do they really believe that? But I truly believe our guys believed they were going to win it and they went and did it."
As surprising as the result for South Alabama was the blueprint.
Sun Belt player of the year candidate Augustine Rubit averaged 15.2 points and 9.2 boards last season, but the 6-foot-6 forward managed just a quiet 12 points and four rebounds on 3 of 11 shooting against the bigger, stronger Seminoles. Instead the Jaguars turned to their lesser-known backcourt to solve Florida State's typically fierce defense.
Five-foot-10 point guard Freddie Goldstein committed too many turnovers but he made up for it with 11 points and four assists and the three go-ahead free throws in the final minute. Six-foot-5 wing Mychal Ammons was even better, scoring 11 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
But the real star was Allen, who left Miami after one season, spent last year at Palm Beach State College and signed with South Alabama in the spring. Hours after Arrow announced the NCAA cleared Allen to play this season, the 6-foot-1 junior showed he can be an impact newcomer, sinking 4 of 5 3-pointers and helping steady the Jaguars whenever Florida State made a second-half charge.
"I was just trying to be aggressive," Allen said. "I know they're a very defensive-oriented team, but we go at it hard in practice every day so I was used to that. I knew if they were going to apply pressure, it would open up lanes to drive. We just made the best of our opportunities."
If Rubin can duplicate last year's production and Allen can build on Friday's performance, South Alabama has a chance to contend in the Sun Belt along with preseason favorites North Texas and Middle Tennessee State. Allen actually came off the bench Friday since the Jaguars have all five starters back from a team that won 17 games a year ago.
South Alabama has beaten the likes of LSU, Arkansas and Florida before under Arrow, but this year's team could be the coach's best since the first season of his second stint in Mobile in 2007.
"We've got to build off this game," Allen said. "We can enjoy it for a night, but then we've got to get back to work. We've got other big games coming."
In other words, watch out Sun Belt: South Alabama won't be easy to beat.
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