March 22, 2013
"It really hurt us really bad. That was our mentality. Our mentality was 'fight.' And we kept doing that the whole season. We are fighting to the end." -Florida State junior forward Natasha Howard, March 21, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- From the moment that final second ticked off the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament clock and the 2011-12 season came to its end, the returning members of the Florida State women's basketball program knew what they had to do.
After seven connective seasons of doing enough in the regular season to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, a 14-17 final record was enough to spark a fire inside head coach Sue Semrau's players that only the sting of loss can provide. The mission was simple: Right the ship. Correct their wrongs. Get back on course after an unexpected and uncharacteristic detour.
Twenty-two wins into the 2012-13 season later, mission accomplished. That "fight" mentality generated a No. 8 seed in the Big Dance and a trip to Waco, Texas for a first-round matchup with Princeton live on ESPN2.
"We have five seniors and we wanted to leave behind something that was already here when I first got here," fifth-year guard Alexa Deluzio said. "Post-seaon, that was not a question. We were an NCAA team so we wanted to do everything we could to leave on that note."
Now that the 'Noles (22-9) have started a new March streak and a new post-season story, they'll be looking to renew a history of success. Each of those seven consecutive NCAA Tournament berths shared a similar trait: they all featured a first-round victory.
To keep that streak alive, the Seminoles must figure out a way to combat a Tigers (22-6) team that has won four consecutive Ivy League titles and is known for its stellar shooting ability and stifling defense. Princeton enters tournament play with the Ivy League's reigning player of the year (Niveen Rasheed) and defensive player of the year (Lauren Polansky).
"They are very much like a lot of the teams in the ACC where they have some size in the post [and] great shooters on the perimeter," Semrau said. "They have a point guard who is a great distributor. They are going to pose a lot of different problems defensively for us, so it'll be a great, great game."
While Florida State is focusing on dealing with Princeton's "five-out" approach, the Tigers are likely scouting the Seminoles' fast-paced style and relentless defensive style.
FSU enters the Sunday-evening showdown at Baylor University's Ferrell Center with a team that until its ACC Tournament loss was the only on in the nation to have five players -- Deluzio, Howard, leading-scorer Leonor Rodriguez, Chasity Clayton and Chelsea Davis -- average double figures.
And unlike that tournament-less 2011-12 campaign, this year's fired up 'Noles squad has seen its game-by-game steals average increase by 4.1 and its turnover margin ascend from a -5.1 to +3.1 thanks to the collective point guard efforts of Morgan Toles and Cheetah Delgado.
"We just have to play our game; fast-paced, score in transition," Deluzio said. "And we have great outside shooters and low post players so if we play like we know how we should be fine."
If they are, the 'Noles will likely face defending national champion Baylor, which is led by superstar post player Brittney Griner and faces Prairie View A&M Sunday after the 'Noles-Tigers tilt on its home floor.
A potentially tall task, indeed, but not one this five-senior Florida State team is focusing on just yet.
"It's a healthy pressure to play every game like it's my last because I have no other choice," Deluzio said. "I think it just pushes me and I am sure the other seniors to be their best every game."