Commentary

Seminoles look to pull improbable upset

Florida State will embrace its imperfections in effort to knock off UConn

Originally Published: March 29, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

DAYTON, Ohio -- Florida State knows better than most teams that beating Connecticut requires an almost perfect performance. The Seminoles twice played good games against the Huskies during UConn's 75-game winning streak, including a game earlier this season in which the prohibitive favorite led by just six at halftime.

[+] EnlargeUconn/Florida State
AP Photo/Steve CannonIf Florida State is to end Connecticut's streak, it will have to do better than the 21 turnovers committed when the two played in December.

Yet twice Florida State also ended up on the wrong end of a double-digit margin.

But as the third-seeded Seminoles prepare to play the tournament's top overall seed Tuesday for a spot in San Antonio (ESPN/ESPN360.com, 7 p.m. ET), they hope that by embracing their imperfections earlier this season they found a catalyst not only for advancing to the first regional final in program history but also for finding that one flawless game.

Knowing thy enemy won't be a problem. That isn't nearly the same thing as knowing how to solve the enemy, especially an enemy that can't miss from the 3-point line of late and just shut down Iowa State, a team that (like Florida State) ranked near the top of the NCAA in outside accuracy.

But the reality of Connecticut is difficult enough to contend with on its own. The Huskies don't need any help dismantling opponents, but they often get it from teams which beat themselves before the game even begins.

55-29, 55-12, 42-14.

Those aren't football scores from the glory days of Bobby Bowden's reign in Tallahassee; they're the halftime scores in Connecticut's first three NCAA games.

"I think if I put myself in the mind of an 18- to 22-year-old, and I've watched Connecticut annihilate people, I think there would be trepidation as you approach it," Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. "The fact that we haven't just watched it, but we've been in a game with Connecticut, I think it will help us in our approach."

Knowing how to be something other than their own worst enemies. Now there was the rub for Florida State.

Opening the season with high expectations, the Seminoles climbed as high as No. 6 in the Top 25 shortly before Christmas, but subsequent losses to DePaul, Miami and Connecticut were part of an extended funk that culminated in an embarrassing 73-43 loss at Duke late in January. That's when Semrau and her staff, instead of gripping ever more tightly as a season slipped away, decided to let an athletic team be itself.

"The reality was that our team was playing paralyzed, our team was playing a little bit afraid to make a mistake," associate coach Cori Close said on the eve of the Sweet 16 in Dayton. "And it wasn't good for the character of this basketball team. And the coaching staff had to say, 'You know what, we're going to have to let go of how we want to do it and figure out what is best for this particular group of young ladies.'

"So we sort of took the reins off a little bit and said, 'You know what, if you're open, and you can shoot that shot at game speed 60 percent of the time or better when you're shooting in the gym, then go shoot it. If that's a good shot for you, go shoot it.'"

What followed was an unbeaten February, including wins at North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Maryland, ending a 12-game home winning streak for the Yellow Jackets and handing the Terrapins their worst home loss in seven years. And as the moments grew tense in the NCAA tournament, down five with less than two minutes to play against St. John's in the second round and down two with three minutes left against Mississippi State in the Sweet 16, the Seminoles proved at ease time and again.

Semrau is too good a coach and too good a tactician to have completely abdicated control, but the sense of freedom within the system appealed to the players.

Or as Angel Gray put it more bluntly of the shift, "Players, of course, we were like, 'Oh yeah, game time!'

"But I think just the fact they had so much trust in us made us want to work harder," Gray continued. "You don't want to have the reins pulled again. So we were working harder, we were watching more film, we were getting extra shots up in the gym when nobody was watching. It's those extra things we did, outside of the coaches being there, that brought us together."

And the personnel does make Florida State interesting. Connecticut's last loss, albeit by a team noticeably different than the current one, came at the hands of Stanford, the same team that led the Huskies at the half in Hartford earlier this season. Like Stanford, Florida State has a steady hand on the ball in Courtney Ward, good shooters on the perimeter in Alysha Harvin, Alexa Deluzio and Ward, and multiple big bodies with skill to match UConn's size in Jacinta Monroe and Cierra Bravard. Monroe is a constant, but Bravard's play against Mississippi State after an up-and-down regular season was crucial to pulling that game out.

Semrau wasn't willing to say her bigs could pose problems for the Huskies, but at least it's an alternative to Iowa State's perimeter flameout. Earlier this season, despite getting only 15 minutes from Bravard as she battled fouls, Connecticut finished with only three more rebounds than Florida State. When the teams met last season, the deficit was two rebounds for Florida State.

"She takes some of the load off [Monroe] and opens things up for our perimeter players," Semrau said of Bravard, the 6-foot-4 sophomore who averaged 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds this season. "But I don't know that that helps us necessarily against UConn, because when Maya [Moore] plays the 4 [position], that makes them a little more agile. … It will be interesting."

You could say the odds are stacked against the Seminoles on Tuesday, except that in reality, they're such underdogs you might find it difficult to find anyone willing to offer odds. If they come out and make the Huskies beat them, well, that's probably precisely what will happen. But that's still more than most teams manage.

Not to mention that if you're looking for that one perfect game, it's not a bad idea to start by embracing your own imperfections.

"Most teams already kind of beat themselves knowing they just see UConn and automatically get scared," Harvin said. "You got to go out and you got to play your game. And that's what we've got to go out and do."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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