Florida State's Success Demonstrates New Balance in ACC Women's Basketball

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009

Three teams have dominated the ACC in women's basketball for the past three seasons, so it is a little strange to glance at the current standings and see Florida State -- and not North Carolina or Duke or Maryland -- sitting undefeated and alone at the top.

For Seminoles senior guard Mara Freshour, it's exciting. But it's not altogether surprising.

"You talk about the Big Three, but this has kind of been in the making since, really, my freshman year," Freshour said. "It's not a complete shift -- it's not like they're going to go down and the rest of us are going to go up -- but it's creating a lot of parity in what's a really tough conference."

Last week illustrated that: No. 8 Maryland beat No. 10 North Carolina on Sunday, No. 18 Florida State upset No. 3 Duke on Thursday, and then No. 19 Virginia topped Maryland on Friday. Tonight, Maryland (16-4, 4-2), which is tied for third place with Virginia and North Carolina, plays at Florida State (18-4, 6-0), and Duke (17-2, 5-1) hosts surprising Boston College (17-4, 5-1) in a battle of second-place teams.

"Top to bottom, everybody's improving, and it's not about us, Carolina and Duke anymore," Maryland senior Marissa Coleman said. "Virginia's playing well, Florida State -- even Wake Forest has gotten better. There are no more easy games, no one we can check off as an easy win."

Said Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan: "I think it makes it a lot more fun when there aren't dominant teams that are so dominant that they just blow through the league and go undefeated and all that. It's good for the league to have different teams up there, it really is. It's good for us nationally; it's good all the way around."

Duke and North Carolina have dominated the regular season and tournament titles in recent years: The last time a team other than the Blue Devils or Tar Heels finished atop the regular season standings came in 2000, when Virginia went 13-3; the last time a team other than the Blue Devils or Tar Heels won the ACC tournament came in 1999, when Clemson won.

Maryland has not won an ACC regular season or tournament title since 1989, but the Terrapins won the 2006 NCAA title, joining North Carolina as the only conference school to do so.

During the past three seasons, the Big Three posted a combined record of 109-17 in regular season league play, and the majority of those losses came in games against each other. Only two other schools managed to win a game against one of the Big Three: N.C. State beat North Carolina and Georgia Tech topped Maryland, both in the 2006-07 season.

But so far this season, Georgia Tech has upset North Carolina, Florida State has beaten Duke and Virginia has defeated Maryland. Five ACC teams are ranked in the top 25.

"I think we've been saying this whole year that we want to be in the Big Three," Virginia senior forward Lyndra Littles said. "The only way to be in the Big Three is to beat one of the people in the Big Three."

Said Freshour: "I think we give Virginia hope, and Virginia gives us hope. We're kind of feeding off of each other, and realizing that these teams are not invincible."

Florida State, which has won nine straight games, has one of the most impressive résumés of any ACC team. The Seminoles have beaten four ranked teams -- Texas A&M (then No. 3), Georgia Tech (No. 24), Virginia (No. 16) and Duke (No. 3) -- and lost to top-ranked Connecticut by just 12 points (a feat, considering that the Huskies win by an average margin of 33.3 points).

The Seminoles are experienced -- they brought back four starters and 85 percent of their scoring from last season's team that went 7-7 in the ACC. And they have played with poise, overcoming second-half deficits to beat Texas A&M and Duke.

"Last year we had players in and out, we had 18 different starting lineups, and there was always going to be something adverse about the situation," said Florida State Coach Sue Semrau, the league's third-longest tenured coach behind Ryan (32nd season) and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell (23rd). "Weathering that kind of year prepared us for the kind of year we're having now. We don't have the same kind of highs and lows."

Semrau, in her 12th season at Florida State, and Freshour attribute the team's success to its balance. The top six scorers in conference play come from three teams: Virginia's Littles (23.5 points) and junior Monica Wright (23.0), Maryland's Kristi Toliver (19.0) and Coleman (17.5), and Boston College's Carolyn Swords (16.7) and Mickel Picco (16.3). Florida State, meantime, doesn't have a single player in the top 10 in the ACC in scoring, but the Seminoles have four players who average between 10 and 13 points.

"Our talent has always been there, maybe not where if we played [Maryland or Duke or North Carolina] one-on-one we would win," Freshour said. "But as a team, our team talent is really just giving us the push right now. We're playing as a team, while the Big Three kind of rely heavily on their one-on-one games."

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