TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As wide as the gulf was between Florida State and Missouri on Sunday night – and the final score of FSU’s 77-57 victory over the Tigers in the second round of the NCAA tournament might still sell it short – perhaps the greatest example of the Seminoles’ dominance was this:
Florida State had Shakayla Thomas and Missouri didn’t.
Didn’t have anyone close, really.
Thomas, a junior forward and the ACC’s player of the year, was simply brilliant in leading FSU to a third straight Sweet Sixteen.
She had 20 points and 11 rebounds to pick up her fifth double-double of the year. She had a steal and a block in the face of Mizzou’s Cierra Porter, who, at 6-foot-4, is taller than Thomas by nearly half a foot. And she had a five-minute stretch in the third quarter when she was clearly the best player on the floor, making three shots from the field while adding two free throws and a rebound that helped the Seminoles turn what had been a tense game into a rout.
Missouri, meanwhile, had no answer.
“Everything,” Tigers coach Robin Pingeton said when asked what made Thomas so effective. “She’s basically un-guardable.”
Thomas’ teammates, of course, offered no argument.
“I know she can score the ball any time she wants,” FSU senior Brittany Brown said. “But when she rebounds and defends on that other end, it just changes us. It changes the whole team.
It changed the game on Sunday.
In keeping with a recent trend, the Seminoles got off to an uneven start and trailed after the first quarter for the fourth straight game.
Things improved in the second, when FSU used a 15-2 run to erase a five-point deficit and surge to 32-27 lead at halftime. But with their advantage just five points and Missouri feeling confident, the Seminoles were still in a tenuous position.
That, however, didn’t last much longer.
Paced by two free throws and a layup from Thomas the Seminoles scored the first eight points of the second half and were never seriously threatened again.
“Nothing really psychs her out,” Brown said. “But I just came to her (at halftime) and I told her, ‘I want you to turn up. Second half, get after it.’ And she did.”
Second-half surges are nothing new for Thomas. She scored 16 of her 20 during the second half on Sunday, which marks the 13th time this season that she’s scored 10 or more points after halftime.
Thomas couldn’t quite put her finger on what changes for her after the break, but Semrau theorized that perhaps Thomas’ former role as the first player off the bench – she won back-to-back ACC sixth player of the year honors as a freshman and sophomore – might have something to do with it.
“It’s interesting,” Semrau said. “…Today, I didn’t think she was as locked in (early) as we needed her to be. Not because she didn’t try to be, but her teammates really give her a lot of energy and encouragement. I think they really just want her to be the great player that she is and the more she hears that, the better she gets.”
The idea that Thomas could get even better is a scary thought for the teams left in Florida State’s tournament bracket.
The Seminoles already know they’ll face No. 2 seed Oregon State in Stockton, Calif., on Saturday. Win that, and a date with No. 1 seed South Carolina or a fourth meeting with fourth-seeded Miami would likely be in store.
While the tournament is still in its early stages – and Semrau insists she isn’t peeking at the bracket – the top teams in the region have looked vulnerable thus far.
Oregon State, which has won 31 games this season, narrowly escaped with a two-point win over No. 15-seed Long Beach State in the first round. And South Carolina trailed No. 8 seed Arizona State with under two minutes to play on Sunday before pulling out a 71-68 victory.
Although the Seminoles still have two major hurdles to clear to make their first Final Four, one thing is clear: They have Shakayla Thomas, and those other teams won’t.
“She,” Missouri’s Pingeton said, “is a really, really special player.”