TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Seminoles.com) –There’s no place like home.
The No. 3 seed Florida State’s women’s basketball team is excited to be back in Tallahassee hosting the 2017 NCAA Tournament first and second rounds.
FSU (25-6), hosting for the first time since 2015, welcomes No. 14 seed Western Illinois (26-6) for its opening game. For the Seminoles, playing in the friendly confines of the Donald. L Tucker Center is a welcoming reward.
“We get to sleep in our own beds and practice in our facility,” FSU head coach Sue Semrau said at the opening press conference. “Even knowing our way and how to get to the press conference and our way to the locker room is wonderful and it will be for us a sense of normalcy with a spice of excitement for sure.”
The Noles come into the NCAA Tournament rejuvenated and ready to make a run. After a hard-fought defeat to Miami in the ACC Tournament, the team used some off time to relax and rehab from the grind of a regular season. With a number of nagging injuries getting a much-needed break, FSU feels as fresh as they have since the beginning of the season.
“It was really beneficial for us, just to give our bodies a break and step away from the game a little bit,” senior guard Brittany Brown said. “Sometimes with how our season is, you get burned out a little bit. I think we are a little bit more motivated, more focused, and excited for what we’re going to do.”
However, the Seminoles know they must play each game one at a time.
Up first are the Leathernecks, winners of the Summit Conference regular season and tournament. Led by head coach JD Gravina, WIU comes into the contest confident, winners of 11 in a row to finish the regular season.
“They are going to be a really tough matchup for us,” Semrau noted on WIU. “They shoot the ball extremely well.”
WIU led the Summit League in points per game with 80.4 (11th nationally) and likes to stretch opposing teams out beyond the perimeter, leading the league in three-pointers made per game at 9.5 (sixth nationally). Their fast pace of play will test FSU’s depth and ability at the guard position. Defensively they use a unique version of a 2-3 matchup zone, hoping to negate their usual size disadvantage.
“I don’t think it is as much of a weakness on their part, but a BCS program isn’t used to playing teams that spread the floor like we do,” Gravina said. “We try to have five kids on the floor at all times that can really run the floor. I think especially in transition defense they won’t be quite as used to running our pace.”
“I think that with our defense, I don’t think it’s something that they’re ready for and necessarily played against,” added sophomore guard Taylor Higginbotham, who averages 14.1 points per game. “We’re confident in our defense and what we have done to try and adjust to them and how it’s going to go for the game.”
Additionally, junior guard Emily Clemens gives the visitors a dynamic playmaker, one capable of taking over games. The conference player of the year averages 19.2 points per game and dishes out 7.3 assists per contest, good for sixth in the NCAA this season.
The Seminoles have won 13 straight games in NCAA first round games and hope the home court advantage will give them a boost in the opening rounds. Semrau noted the importance of this weekend’s impact on the women’s game as a whole. In her 20th season at FSU, she’s made many efforts to grow the sport and noted the improvement she’s observed since the last time Tallahassee hosted the tournament.
“You look at the fact that we have had a lot of firsts this year in program history. First time we have been ranked in the top four in the country, first time we have had this many wins against top 25 teams,” Semrau said with a smile.
“There is just so much going on and on and it continues to build and I think that speaks to the growth of women’s basketball in Tallahassee but also now, nationally. There is more parity and it is fun to be a part of that.”
Since taking over at FSU in 1997, Semrau has propelled FSU to new heights. From 1982-97, the Noles made just three NCAA tournament appearances. Since her arrival, FSU has appeared 13 times on the game’s biggest stage.
The city has taken notice, so have her own players.
“That’s something that I love about her (Semrau), Brown said. “She’s always busting her tail to get people in here for us, a chance to play on a big stage in front of fans and a big atmosphere. That’s very special to me and very beneficial in terms of playing in a game when we need that energy boost from those fans and from the band.”
This weekend on the court, Florida State will use its talented, experienced-laden roster to lean on previous experiences in hopes of winning their pod and advancing to the school’s third-straight Sweet 16 in Stockton, CA.
“This what we’ve been waiting for all season long and we got to get back to what we were and have that mentality that nothing bothers us, we’re going for that goal,” senior guard Leticia Romero said.
“I’ve seen that in practice the last couple days and excited about these two games.”