March 25, 2016 - by
Opportunity Awaits Noles In Sweet 16 Tilt Against Baylor

DALLAS – When she arrived at Florida State 19 years ago, Sue Semrau set her sights simply on becoming competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The task wouldn’t be easy. The Seminoles had moved to the ACC from the Metro Conference just six years prior to Semrau’s first season in 1997, and were struggling to hold their own against the ACC’s basketball blue bloods.

Consider that FSU went 0-16 in league play the year before Semrau took over, and had won just eight ACC games in the previous four seasons combined.

But some time during the last two decades – and Semrau isn’t quite sure when – that objective evolved. It might have been when the Seminoles upset No. 2 Duke in 2004. Or when they wrapped up back-to-back ACC regular season titles in 2010. Or when they advanced to their first Elite Eight later that year.

With ACC relevance in the rearview mirror, Semrau set her sights higher.

“I knew that at that point it wasn’t just about being competitive in the ACC,” Semrau said. “It was about building a national brand. And obviously, most sports at Florida State have already done that. And you look at football and baseball and you knew basketball had to be next.”

By almost any measure, Semrau has built FSU into a national brand in women’s college basketball.

Reaching back-to-back Sweet 16s, which the program did for the first time this year, is the latest sign of that.

And what comes next – a regional semifinal date with No. 1-seed Baylor here in Dallas – is another opportunity to take a giant step on to the national stage.

In a sport famously dominated by Connecticut, Baylor is one of just five programs other than UConn to win a national title since 2000. The Lady Bears won two, in 2005 and 2012.

In other words, Baylor has stepped through the same door that the Seminoles are knocking on now.

“This is a big step for us in our growth, and I hope to continue,” Semrau said. “(Baylor coach) Kim (Mulkey) has done an amazing job, start to finish.”

It will be the second meeting between FSU and Baylor. The Bears, behind future No. 1 WNBA draft pick Brittany Griner, beat the Seminoles 85-47 in the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Griner is long gone, but Baylor still presents a tall order.

The Lady Bears are 35-1, have won 22 straight games and rank in the top-15 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

“They’re a talented team, no question,” FSU center Adut Bulgak said. “I think it balances out really well. They have some really physical, big post players. We have some physical, athletic post players. They have some really great guards, we have some really great guards.

“So it’s going to be a really interesting match-up.”

 

 

Both Semrau and Mulkey said they believe their teams are playing as well as they have all year.

In FSU’s case, it’s hard to argue.

After a thud against Miami in the ACC tournament quarterfinals earlier this month, Semrau went back to the drawing board and redefined some roles across her roster.

With two weeks between games, those roles took hold and, when the Seminoles took the floor for their first-round NCAA game against Middle Tennessee State, they looked like a revitalized team.

FSU cruised to a 72-55 win over Middle Tennessee, then, even better, made it look easy in a 74-56 victory over host Texas A&M in the second round.

“Everybody talks about wanting to peak at this point in the year,” Semrau said. “Trying to make it happen? That’s another story.

“But I’m certainly very excited as a coach that my team is playing the way they are right now.”

It doesn’t hurt that FSU beat Texas A&M in a de facto road game, because the Seminoles are in for more of the same on Saturday.

Baylor’s campus in Waco, Texas, is just 90 miles from Dallas. The Lady Bears averaged more than 6,000 fans per game this year and are expecting a big crowd to make the drive up Interstate 35.

FSU is no stranger to difficult settings. The Seminoles played in front of more than 9,000 fans earlier this season at Louisville, and more than 8,000 in a neutral-site game against Connecticut.

And in last season’s Elite Eight, FSU held on against 6,000 South Carolina supporters before falling to the Gamecocks in the waning minutes.

So the Bears may be tough, but the Seminoles are confident they won’t be overwhelmed by the moment.

“We’re used to it,” junior guard Brittany Brown said. “…We’ve been used to the atmosphere. I think we’re going to be pretty prepared.”

FSU also likes the way it matches up with the Lady Bears. Semrau said she expects a fast-paced game, which could favor FSU’s athletic frontcourt.

What the Seminoles give up in size – Baylor boasts five players 6-foot-3 or taller, and freshman Kalani Brown stands 6-7 – they expect to make up for in quickness.

And if the Lady Bears want to get physical?

“Sounds like a problem for them if they want to throw 15 fouls at us,” Bulgak said. “We’re going to take that to our advantage.”

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