TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Geno Auriemma called it a miracle.
Out-played, out-hustled and out-classed for 20 minutes, Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies went into halftime trailing Florida State by four points on Monday.
Any more than that, Auriemma would later say, and the second half might have been a mere formality.
“(FSU) got everything they wanted in the first half,” Auriemma said. “If we were down 14, that might have been the end.”
That, of course, is not how it worked out. UConn rallied in the third quarter then held on in the fourth to outlast FSU, 78-76, at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
FSU got a great look at the game-winning shot, but Imani Wright’s 3-point attempt fell short at the buzzer.
“There’s no moral victory here,” coach Sue Semrau said.
No, there’s not. FSU, ranked 12th and having made two consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2015, is beyond that.
But there is plenty on which to build.
Consider everything that UConn brought in to Tallahassee on Monday night:
– Four straight national championships
– A 75-game winning streak that dates back to Nov. 14, 2014
– At least a 10-point margin of victory in each of those 75 wins
Beyond that, FSU led the Huskies, 37-30, in the third quarter, which marked the largest deficit they had faced at any point of their current streak.
“They’re good,” Auriemma said of the Seminoles. “They are really, really good.”
And they really could get even better.
First and foremost, the Seminoles were playing without starting point guard Leticia Romero, an Olympic silver medalist and one of the most talented players in the country.
It’s impossible to say if Romero, sidelined by an injury, would have been worth another two points on Monday, but FSU sure would have liked to have found out.
“We have a really athletic team,” Semrau said, “and I look forward to going even deeper with ‘Leti.’”
Florida State also struggled to shoot for much of the night, hitting just 36.1 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from 3-point range.
Both of those numbers are well below their averages from a year ago, and bound to improve.
Wright especially has the tools to be a dangerous outside shooter – she led Baylor with 42 3-pointers made as a sophomore in 2014-15.
“I obviously wish were on the other side of this, having won,” Semrau said. “But we got the ball into two really great scorers’ hands at the end of the game in Shakayla Thomas and Imani Wright. … We gave ourselves a chance.
And they gave UConn their biggest scare in years.
“That whole first half was a huge struggle for us to get anything going,” Auriemma said. “Obviously, the Florida State kids had everything to do with that, for the most part.
“I thought they were incredibly aggressive in every phase of the game.”
That’s a big difference from Friday’s opener, when the Seminoles beat Jacksonville State, 73-62, but otherwise had Semrau disappointed with certain aspects of her team’s effort, especially on defense.
FSU allowed Jacksonville State to make 14 3-pointers, a number that Semrau called “inexcusable.”
Over the weekend, however, the Seminoles went back to the grindstone. And, on Monday, their progress was obvious.
“We didn’t have a good first couple of games (including a preseason exhibition),” Semrau said. “But these guys got back in the gym and worked extremely hard. We were all over (UConn) on the defensive end.”
Short of a victory over the No. 1 team in the country, that might be the best thing Semrau could ask for: In just two games, her team has shown clear signs of improvement while still awaiting the return of its offensive catalyst.
A similar trajectory over the next few weeks leading up to ACC play – the Seminoles have 11 more non-conference games, including a date with Florida on Dec. 8 – should have FSU right where it wants to be once it reaches the meat of its schedule.
“We’ve still got so much work to do,” Semrau said. “…The victory is our growth as a basketball team.”