Commentary

For FSU, loss is only part of the journey

For 36 hours before tipping with UConn, Seminoles planned, prepped and ... believed

Originally Published: March 30, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

DAYTON, Ohio -- You saw this: Connecticut 90, Florida State 50, as Geno Auriemma's Huskies won the Dayton Regional final Tuesday evening and continued their scorched-bracket policy of March basketball terror.

[+] EnlargeFSU
Mike Olivella for ESPN.comIn advancing to face UConn, Florida State reached the program's first Elite Eight.

It was UCrush's 76th consecutive victory (they haven't lost since Jesus wore Pampers), its 37th consecutive blowout this season and its almost-incomprehensible eighth trip to the Final Four in the last 10 years. The Huskies have cut down enough nets to start their own fishing village.

But what you didn't see was a Florida State team that spent the previous 36 hours preparing itself to attempt the upset of the year, decade … ever? From the time the Seminoles woke up Monday morning to the 7:03 p.m. Tuesday tipoff, they chugged the anti-UConn Kool-Aid. Never once did they think they'd be the latest crushee.

Monday, 9 a.m.

The NCAA isn't very subtle about how it treats basketball royalty and its No. 1 seeds. UConn is housed in the preferred hotel that sits conveniently next to the University of Dayton campus. The arena is about a dozen Maya Moore fast breaks from the hotel, no more than a three-minute charter bus ride from door to door.

Meanwhile, Sue Semrau's Seminoles are assigned to a hotel 8.2 miles away. It's easy to find: Just head south on I-75 to Miamisburg, take a left at Exit 44, drive past the gas stations, take a right near the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, go past the Chuck E. Cheese's and the Blue Byrd Tattoo and Body Piercing on the left, aim the rental car toward the Montgomery County Water Tower and you're there.

Hanging above the modest lobby is a blue NCAA tournament banner. Someone from the Florida State traveling party has placed an FSU decal on an aquarium near the front desk. That's about it for March Madness ambiance.

[+] EnlargeAlysha Harvin
Courtesy Mike OlivellaAfter beating La. Tech, St. John's and Mississippi State, Alysha Harvin and Florida State were focused on UConn.

Semrau doesn't care. When she took the FSU job in 1997, the Seminoles were 0-for-ACC the previous season. They were the gimme on everyone's schedule. Now they're the co-champions of the league for a second straight year and have advanced to the program's first Elite Eight.

As a reward, the Seminoles get to play UConn, the USSR of women's college basketball.

A day earlier in the FSU locker room, the Seminoles had doused Semrau with their water bottles after the Sweet 16 win against Mississippi State. But they knew their celebration would be cut short by the inevitable questions about the Huskies, who earlier on Sunday had left teeth marks on Iowa State, 74-36. So complete was the devastation that Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said he hadn't been whipped like that "since I was a little kid and broke something of my mom's."

So the Seminole players were prepared. In fact, as they stood in the waiting area for the postgame news conference to begin, several of the FSU starters had pretended to be reporters and had asked each other UConn-related questions.

FSU had played -- and lost -- to the Huskies in Tallahassee last Dec. 28. The final score was 78-59, but the Seminoles trailed by only six at halftime. Then came the UConn Blitzkrieg.

But this was a different FSU team from four months ago. Semrau said so. The players said so. Even Auriemma said so.

As the Seminoles met for breakfast Monday morning, then for study hall and then for an early-afternoon film session, one thought kept lingering in their heads. UConn is beatable.

Monday, 12:45 p.m.

The Dayton Room is an oversized hotel room without a bed, nightstands and TV. Instead, there are 11 thin tables occupied by 11 FSU players and assorted grad assistants, training staff, video and media-relations personnel. Semrau stands to the left side of the room with assistant head coach Lance White, while associate head coach Cori Close stands on the other side, video remote control in her hand. The UConn logo fills the screen at the front of the meeting room.

FSU coaches don't want pretty. They want bruise marks. They want welts. They want the Seminoles to rebound until UConn drops. They want to force the Huskies to shoot over their 2-3 zone, rather than watch UConn feed it low to All-American center Tina Charles or All-American forward Maya Moore dribble drive along the baseline for an easy two.

If the Seminoles are tight, they don't show it. They giggle as they take turns trying to land hard mints into water glasses. Jacinta "Cint" Monroe, an All-ACC first-team selection, shoots a J that hits the inside of the glass and shatters the side. Semrau smiles and then turns to her team.

"Everybody is asking how we're going to prepare to play UConn,'' she says. "But did anybody ask the question, 'How is UConn going to prepare for Florida State?' Think about that. They haven't asked that question. But I'm asking that question.''

Semrau refers to the Seminoles' pre-February stretch of games, when FSU lost a pair of contests in December and another pair of games in January. There were stretches when FSU played, in Semrau's words, "really dumb.'' Some of the most knucklehead caliber of basketball was played in that regular-season loss to the Huskies.

Not anymore. "We've gotten un-dumb,'' she tells the team.

FSU has won 11 of its last 12 games. It beat Louisiana Tech by six points in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, St. John's by 1 in overtime to reach the Sweet 16 and Mississippi State by 3 to reach the Elite Eight and UConn.

"[UConn] thinks they're playing the team they played before,'' says Semrau. "C'mon.''

Each player has a detailed scouting report of the UConn roster. Semrau tells the Seminoles to look at the back page of the report. In large bold type, it reads:

BE ROUGH AND PHYSICAL!
KEEP PEOPLE IN FRONT OF US!
REBOUND, REBOUND, REBOUND

The game plan is surprisingly uncomplicated. Instead, it emphasizes the most basic of philosophies: Impose your will on the opponent. Semrau picks up the broken glass with the mint in it.

"How many people expect this little guy to sail through right here and come perfectly through and then bust the glass open?'' she says. "We do. We do.''

If the Seminoles are going to bust UConn, they're going to need to play a near-perfect, if not perfect game. The Huskies have outscored their opponents this season by an average of 36 points. During the NCAAs, the margin has grown to a stunning 49.3 points.

No wonder the oddsmakers in Vegas have UConn as a 26-point favorite against the Seminoles -- an almost unheard-of spread for an Elite Eight matchup. And the Huskies were so overwhelmingly popular when the tournament began that Jay Rood, director of race and sports for MGM Mirage, put together a proposition bet: UConn versus the rest of the NCAA field. You had to lay $800 on UConn to win $100.

Bettors flocked to UConn, forcing Rood to up the risk. You now have to lay $1,000 to win that same $100.

"I think the only hope we have of seeing someone beat them is if Stanford plays them,'' says Rood. "Even then, UConn would be a 14-17-point favorite.''

Nobody is giving Florida State even a puncher's chance -- except Florida State. FSU coaches figure the Seminoles were six costly possessions from pulling off the upset in December.

"Now we're six possessions smarter,'' says Semrau to the team. "We're going to show you where it turned, why it turned and how we're going to make up that ground tomorrow night … We know how to beat them and we're going to go after it.''

Close hits the clicker on the remote. UConn game footage appears on the screen. There's no other way to describe how the Huskies play: It's basketball artistry. They cut you into little pieces before you feel the first scalpel incision.

"They want the game to be really pretty,'' says Close, referring to UConn's precision passing and transition game (33 percent of the Huskies' points come off turnovers).

FSU coaches don't want pretty. They want bruise marks. They want welts. They want the Seminoles to rebound until UConn drops. They want to force the Huskies to shoot over their 2-3 zone, rather than watch UConn feed it low to All-American center Tina Charles or All-American forward Maya Moore dribble drive along the baseline for an easy two.

Do that -- all of it -- and the Seminoles have at least a chance.

"We're coming after you,'' says Close, who has watched or studied about 60 hours of UConn game tape or broadcasts this season. "We're not here to see what happens. We're here to attack, to throw the first punch … Is it going to be a hard game? Absolutely. You want to go to the Final Four? That's what you got to do, you got to win a hard game.''

[+] EnlargeJacinta Monroe
Courtesy Mike OlivellaFlorida State senior Jacinta Monroe is an All-ACC first-team honoree this season.

Close does a quick rundown of the UConn roster. It's just as well, since the Huskies' key players have few flaws. The two-page scouting report details it all.

Guard Tiffany Hayes: "Play maker … most improved … makes the most plays off the dribble.''

Guard Caroline Doty: "Shooter … good passer and cutter … will shoot almost all 3's.''

Guard Kalana Greene: "Slasher, rebounder … aggressive and relentless … explosive off the glass and off the bounce.''

Moore: "Green light … she is their 'go to' … great on the glass and a lot of times tips it to other players who finish the play … make her work.''

Charles: "She works very hard, but so many people bail her out … we absolutely need to keep her farther out … finishes great in the [paint] … must find a way to outwork and out-tough her.''

Guard Kelly Faris: "One of the best passers on the team … first player off the bench, even though she is a freshman.''

Guard Lorin Dixon: "She comes in to bring the heat.''

Forward Kaili McLaren: "When I call her a passer, it isn't because she can't do other things. It is because she is spectacular at that.''

As the UConn game footage continues, it's obvious that some serious psychological warfare is being played. Starting forward Chasity "Chas" Clayton finally notices about 20 minutes into the film session.

"Excuse me,'' says the redshirt freshman, slightly confused. "But why are we showing all misses?''

"Because in the highlights,'' says Semrau, "they show all makes.''

FSU's coaches, with an assist from video coordinator Tyler Cleverly (it was his idea to show the misses), want their team to know UConn's players are capable of mistakes. Lots of them, especially if the Seminoles can muddy up the game.

"We know what you guys have heard in the media for ever and ever,'' says Close. "It's true: A lot of people have lost the game [against UConn] before they go out there. You guys have the advantage that you've played them before.''

Monday, 1:35 p.m.

An accident on I-75 causes the FSU team bus to arrive late to the off-day media session. The starters (Clayton, Monroe, guard Angel Gray, guard/forward Alysha "LeLe" Harvin, guard Courtney Ward) and Semrau report to the interview room. The remaining players sit nearby. Backup forward/center Cierra Bravard, a sophomore from Sandusky, Ohio, says UConn kicked the tires on her during the recruiting process, "but I don't think either of us were that serious.''

She was serious about FSU. And she becomes deathly serious if you use Florida State and the word "underdogs'' in the same sentence. "They're the No. 1 team,'' she says of UConn. "They're not descendants from God.''

Iowa State would disagree.

Monday, 2:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State Practice
AP Photo/Al BehrmanHaving played UConn on Dec. 28, media questions got a little redundant for the Seminoles.

The Seminoles wait in a tunnel concourse as UConn completes its practice. So I ask FSU assistant coach White if his team can do the unthinkable.

"I believe that our kids believe they can be in it,'' he says. "Then you need that luck to happen.''

A few minutes later, the Seminoles get the court. A team photo is arranged. The players flash four fingers on each hand. Elite Eight.

"Tomorrow,'' says Semrau, "we can take a hand away.''

Monday, 8:07 p.m.

The FSU hotel lobby has two new additions: a collection of party balloons, including one huge balloon that reads, "Kick Geno's Butt.'' There's a card attached, but no signature.

The other new sight is a soft cast around the left lower leg of Quentin White, the 4-year-old son of Lance White. Earlier, Quentin had leaped from a half flight of stairs. It didn't end well.

Monday, 9:01 p.m.

The players arrive from dinner, spot Quentin on his miniature pair of crutches and take turns giving him hugs. Then they go upstairs and watch the end of the Baylor-Duke regional final. Baylor wins.

In the postgame interview, Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey implores Baylor's fans to travel from Waco to San Antonio for the Final Four.

"You're gonna see the best team in the country in Connecticut [tiny pause] if they win the next one,'' she tells ESPN's Holly Rowe.

The slight isn't lost on Close, who mentions it to the Seminoles as they assemble in the Dayton Room for the night film session. Close embellishes the quote a little bit for effect ("You hear what she said? 'We're getting ready for Connecticut.'").

[+] EnlargeFSU Practice
AP Photo/Al BehrmanWith "REBOUND, REBOUND, REBOUND" on the scouting report, the pressure was on Jacinta Monroe and Cierra Bravard.

No harm, no foul.

"All right, let's get our minds on the big picture,'' Semrau says.

And they do, reviewing more UConn personnel footage, more UConn offensive sets, more FSU zone defense, more everything.

"If there's one word I want you to dream tonight,'' says Close, "it's rebound.''

And then comes a special video package. It begins with assorted talking heads and even UConn alum Ray Allen, going on and on about the Huskies. The tribute is interrupted by a graphic that reads, "Enough Is Enough. It's Our Time.''

There are FSU hoops highlights, followed by the postgame water bottle shower of Semrau, followed by Bravard slipping and falling on the wet floor (she was OK). This sends the room into hysterics.

The video ends with a doctored ESPN.com front page. The headline?

UConn Streak Finished At 75. Noles in Final Four.

Semrau dismisses the team. "Now get some rest,'' she says.

Semrau, on doctor's orders, will need a light dose of Ambien to do the same.

Tuesday, 12:05 p.m.

More film, this time of FSU's Sweet 16 win against Mississippi State.

All made shots.

Tuesday, 1:12 p.m.

Rebecca Lobo, ESPN basketball analyst and former UConn star, is sitting courtside as the Seminoles go through their hourlong shootaround. Are the 2010 Huskies the best UConn team ever?

No, she says, the 2002 version was better. She says it. Auriemma does too.

And if Florida State won tonight? Biggest upset in women's college basketball history?

Lobo thinks about it for a moment -- but only a moment.

Yes, she says, the biggest upset.

The shootaround ends with the Seminoles in a huddle at midcourt. One of the players shouts, "This is our day!''

Tuesday, 5:30 p.m.

The team bus leaves the land of body piercings and pizzas. Fifty minutes later, after the initial set of warm-up drills, the Seminoles return to their locker room.

Semrau walks in, crouches in front of them and recites a checklist of dos and don'ts. Do watch UConn's Greene on early run-outs -- she loves to cherry-pick. Don't be careless with the ball -- the Huskies like to pressure on defense early and they get a third of their points on turnovers.

She writes the word "Elite'' on the grease board.

"You're elite,'' says Semrau, her voice rising. "Period. Now we got to go play like it.''

Tuesday, 8:04 p.m.

They don't play like it.

The Seminoles try, they really do, but every pregame emphasis point has come back to haunt FSU.

Chasity Clayton
AP Photo/Al BehrmanFSU's game plan? Impose your will on the opponent. But Chasity Clayton and the Seminoles couldn't deliver.

UConn outrebounds FSU 26-19 in the first half. The All-American Charles has repeatedly worked her way behind the Seminoles' defense or established perfect low-post position. She scores 16 points and grabs 11 rebounds in the first half.

The Huskies are also the ones who take the first punch -- and keep punching. They get to the line 14 times, compared to six for FSU, and they hold the Seminoles scoreless for six minutes late in the half.

The scary part? Moore, stuck with two early fouls, plays only seven minutes in the half and UConn still takes a 42-28 lead.

"Arrgghh,'' says Semrau, as she takes a seat in the coaches' locker room at halftime. "We're missing all those shots we have to hit … yech. We can't give up another 42.''

They decide to play behind Charles at all times. They want Ward to take more shots. They want to turn the last 20 minutes into four-minute intervals and chip away at the UConn lead little by little.

They walk next door and meet with the players.

"You still believe?'' says Close. "Then let's go.''

"You're gonna come out and win this basketball game!'' Semrau says.

Tuesday, 8:39 p.m.

The Vegas wise guys and Lobo are right. UConn is that good.

With 7:20 left in the game, UConn has doubled up FSU, 76-38. A 24-6 run to start the second half turns the Seminoles into "Iowa State: The Sequel."

It isn't as if FSU is phoning it in. It isn't. The Seminoles are leaving sweat puddles everywhere. But Moore, Greene, FSU turnovers, arctic-cold shooting and low rebounding numbers do in the Seminoles. By the 6:43 mark, Auriemma The Merciful has pulled four of his five starters.

Tuesday, 9:02 p.m.

UConn is going to its third consecutive Final Four. The Seminoles are going back to Tallahassee.

[+] EnlargeTina Charles
Scott Terna/US PresswireAfter Maya Moore went to the bench with two fouls just seven minutes into the game, Tina Charles took over, notching a double-double by halftime.

FSU gives up 48 points in the second half and loses 90-50 -- the worst defeat in Semrau's Florida State career and the most lopsided since February 1996.

But this is the trade-off. The Seminoles make school history by reaching their first Elite Eight. But they also become part of UConn's historic run toward hoops immortality.

The Huskies' Charles finishes with 20 points and 14 rebounds in just 28 minutes. Moore, the regional's Most Outstanding Player, scores 22 in 20 minutes. Greene doesn't miss a shot or a free throw on her way to 15 points. The Huskies, who never trail in the game, outrebound FSU 46-31, hold the Seminoles to 28.6 percent shooting and force 19 turnovers.

Afterward, UConn doesn't bother cutting down the nets. They're saving their scissors for San Antonio.

There are red eyes and tears in the FSU locker room. It has been an unforgettable 35-game ride, to be sure, but with an unforgettable and jarring collision into Team Geno.

Semrau pulls up a chair in front of her team. Her eyes are misty, too.

"I hurt for you guys,'' she says. "I have never been part of a team that made me believe like you did. I'm so proud.

"That's going to go away,'' she says, nodding toward the court. "Thank God, that's going to go away.''

She thanks her team for its trust, for its work and for its character. Those 29 FSU wins were the gravy, she says.

"I'm extremely proud,'' says Semrau, standing up. "I think I've said that about eight times. Let's get out of here.''

Weird how this worked out. A team can lose big and yet, in Florida State's case, win at the same time.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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