TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Florida State was challenging for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament most of the season. Now the Seminoles are looking to return to previous form.
The Seminoles (25-6) dropped four of their final six games and is the third seed in Stockton Regional. They will face No. 14 Western Illinois (26-6) in a first-round game on Friday. The first game matches No. 6 Missouri (21-10) against No. 11 South Florida (24-8) with the winners meeting Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16.
Last year the Seminoles also entered the tournament struggling. But they won the first two rounds before losing to Baylor in the Sweet 16.
Florida State coach Sue Semrau though was not concerned about her team's lack of momentum and pointed to the late-season losses as a lapse of focus.
''Momentum sounds good but that's not why we lost a couple of those games,'' she said. ''It has everything to do with how ready we are.''
The Seminoles were ranked in the top 10 for most of the season and were as high as fourth last month before slumping down the stretch.
Senior guard Leticia Romero, who is averaging 12.2 points per game, thinks the two-week layoff between the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments has helped them recharge.
''I think we needed it after a long season and those hard games at the end,'' Romero said. ''I'm pretty confident honestly about our last practices.''
The Seminoles should also be in better shape physically. Junior forward Shakayla Thomas, who is the ACC Player of the Year after averaging 14.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, says she is healthy after missing two games due to a shoulder injury. Romero was limited the final two games due to a back injury but will be in the starting lineup.
Some other things to look for in Friday's matchups:
SOMETHING TO PROVE: South Florida is making its fourth NCAA appearance in the past five seasons and was a sixth seed the past two years. Despite being ranked in the Top 25 for half the season, the Bulls are a No. 11 seed. ''Down the road we will probably find out why we were an 11. Did we move down a seed line for regional purposes? Tomorrow I think our play will speak for itself,'' coach Jose Fernandez said.
USF, which has seven international players on its roster, is led by AAC first-team selections Kitija Laksa and Maria Jespersen. Laksa, a sophomore guard from Latvia, has six 30-point games and is averaging 19.2 points. Jespersen, a junior forward from Denmark is averaging 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds.
UNDER THE RADAR: Missouri is making consecutive NCAA appearances for the first time since 1986. A big reason for the Tigers' resurgence has been sophomore guard Sophia Cunningham, who was second in the SEC in scoring (17.7 points per game) and a first-team selection.
''She is not afraid of the big stage and moment, and that is just a trait she grew up with and I think that is a big reason why she came to Missouri. She wanted to blaze a new trail and she wanted to be in that position,'' coach Robin Pingeton said. Pingeton sees a lot of similarities in her team's style of play and USF.
DARE TO DREAM AGAIN: Western Illinois coach JD Gravina says his team has accomplished the impossible a couple times this season, including winning the Summit League Tournament at South Dakota. He is hoping that his team can be the first No. 14 seed to beat a third seed in the women's tournament. One thing that gives Gravina confidence is the Leathernecks' defense, which he says is a match-up zone that has evolved throughout season.
''I do feel like in some our competition against bigger and stronger teams it has at least neutralized some of that advantage,'' he said. ''We were hoping to get a team that was bigger ... really post-oriented that didn't have as many shooters as FSU has which will be a challenge for us.''
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