- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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DAYTON, Ohio -- It's not quite 30 minutes after one of the toughest assignments of Angel Gray's career, and the Florida State senior is relaxing in a chair in front of her locker, a bag of popcorn in hand and a satisfied smile stretching across her face.
"You want a seat?" she asks as she nods toward the empty chair next to her.
After watching Gray shadow, stymie and suffocate Mississippi State's Alexis Rack for most of the 26 minutes Gray was on the court Sunday, there's a certain guilty feeling that comes with sitting down around her. As if the person with the note pad and voice recorder in hand ought to first sprint up and down the giant incline that leads from the court at Dayton up to ground level a few times to earn the right to share the rest she earned the hard way.
There are plenty of reasons No. 3 seed Florida State overcame a second-half deficit and survived a late scare to beat No. 7 Mississippi State 74-71 and advance to the first regional final in program history. There's Alysha Harvin, the senior scorer who carried the Seminoles early, late and often on the scoreboard with clutch shots and added big plays on defense. There's point guard Courtney Ward, who overcame early foul trouble to make big play after big play in the second half, and star post Jacinta Monroe, who blocked five shots. There are unsung role players like Alexa Deluzio and Cierra Bravard coming through with some of their best performances at the most opportune times.
But you might as well start with Gray. After all, she does wear No. 1.
"Really down the stretch, that's when I thought she played her best," Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. "She's done that for us all year. She's just the unsung hero. Nobody talks about that, and it was huge for us."
Gray said the day before the game that she started studying Rack before the latter's second-round game was even over. As soon as it was clear the Lady Bulldogs would upset second-seeded Ohio State, Gray turned her tunnel vision on one of the SEC's leading scorers, looking to see where Rack liked the ball, how she came off screens, when she looked to pass. A 50 percent shooter from the 3-point line herself before dropping below the mark Sunday, Gray nonetheless needs chiding from teammates and coaches to look for her shot on offense. She admits the defensive end is where she derives her greatest basketball pleasure.
As Gray put it after the win, "When they come down the court, they give you that look like, 'All right, I'm going to try and make something happen.' And you know, I'm looking back at them like, 'All right, you can try.' It's pretty funny. I mean, I'm a very competitive person, and I'm sure they are too. And this is what the game is for. It's for different looks and different passionate people coming together and competing for the same prize."
And so it was that Rack needed 14 shots to get her 13 points Sunday, a week after scoring 30 points against Ohio State and 21 against Middle Tennessee. And as the game came down to a few crucial exchanges in the final minutes, it was Rack missing contested shots or failing to get a look at the basket in the first place. Gray had her locked up, getting over and around screens like mogul skiers get over the bumps that send their recreational counterparts tumbling into all-out yard sales.
"She's one of those few kids that quick enough and powerful enough to guard those really great guards," said assistant coach Lance White, the team's defensive coordinator. "I think all year long, from Monica Wright in the ACC, [Gray] is one of the few that's explosive enough, that can keep her in front of her, as well as quick enough to chase her through all those screens and that kind of stuff. So again tonight, I thought she did a really good job. I thought those last three possessions, what she had to do with Rack, make the difference in our ability to defend on the perimeter."
That Gray's effort nearly went for naught -- Rack's long 3-pointer at the buzzer came inches from sending the game to overtime -- is indicative of just how well Mississippi State played in defeat. A team many assumed would go as far as Rack took it got huge contributions from Mary Kathryn Govero (19 points, including 5-of-10 on 3-pointers) and Chanel Mokango (20 points, nine rebounds and four blocks).
But on this afternoon, the Seminoles had the player no defender could handle in Harvin. One of the seniors (along with Gray and Monroe) who led all season with the sting of last season's second-round upset loss to Arizona State on their minds, Harvin hit four 3-pointers en route to a game-high 21 points.
What Gray took on one end, Harvin finished at the other end.
"I'm flabbergasted," Gray said with admiration for Harvin's day. "Alysha Harvin came to play. She was not going to let us settle. It didn't matter what they were doing. I think we did come out slow, but she said, 'You now what, I'll take it over; I got this right here.' And we followed. She did a great job as far as shooting, getting it to the post, even driving. I think she was the X factor in this game, and I'm very proud of her performance."
The feeling was mutual. In fact, you're not likely to find many people with bad words to say about Gray, unless they've just spent some portion of 40 minutes with her in their grill on the court. As friendly as they come off the court, she's a complete nuisance for opponents on it. After missing the second half of her freshman season with a torn ACL, playing sparingly while returning from the injury as a sophomore and only taking on the role of full-time starter this season, she has a killer instinct second to none.
"It's so funny because she's such a pleaser that she wants to do things right," White said. "And she constantly is pushing herself to do it right and correct. She's had so many setbacks in her life with her knee and not getting to play early in her career. And so I think all of that stuff motivates her to be a better player. On the court, though, she's such a competitor. And so that's where that change -- where she's not as nice on the court because she wants to compete; she wants to win at anything she does -- and so I think that's where that change occurs, is between the lines, she's going to compete first. But she'll also be the first one to help you up, too."
Or to offer you a seat. As long as you aren't wearing the other team's jersey with the ball in your hands, she's the most polite defender in Dayton.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
19dBonnie D. Ford