The Florida State women’s basketball team was fueled by a Big 3 of Nausia Woolfolk, Nicki Ekhomu and Kiah Gillespie, which combined to average 48.5 points per game, a season ago. A loss of production, leadership and defense would be significant.
FSU’s coaching staff pursued some talented transfers and had one who was forced to sit out the 2019-20 season in Bianca Jackson. But the coaches also felt confident in younger players who had been contributors — and those they felt could take a leap forward and be impactful.
Among those are junior guard Morgan Jones, who was named to the All-ACC coaches’ first-team and all-defensive team this week.
“We knew, she knew that her role was going to be crucial to our success on both sides of the floor,” interim head coach Brooke Wyckoff told the Osceola. “She was hungry. It started in the summer when we were able to have players come back. She was one of the first ones back in the gym. You could kind of see just a determination and realization of the fact that her role was going to be bigger and she wanted to step into that role.”
Jones earned the role through her hard work in the offseason. In her first two years on the team, Jones played significant minutes as she started 38 combined games. And Jones showed her energy on the defensive end but averaged just 5.2 points as a freshman and 5.8 points as a sophomore. But Jones showed a good work ethic, played well on defense and made 55 percent of her shots from the floor in those two seasons.
All of the pieces were there. All of the indicators that coaches look for were there. And this season Jones’ numbers jumped dramatically, to 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as well as 22 steals — all of which lead the team.
“Freshman year, I didn’t score that much,” Jones told the Osceola. “I didn’t take that many shots freshman year but that came with confidence and repetition, working with coaches after practice, before practice, and being confident enough to do it in practice, and that later translating into a game. Just reps and just trusting myself and trusting the work that I put in and being able to do in games without hesitating.”
That lack of hesitation, by Jones as well as Kourtney Weber, Valencia Myers and Jackson, has helped a new core of Seminoles (10-7, 9-7 ACC) deliver in what was a challenging season. FSU had 15 games postponed or canceled and had just a season-opening win over rival Florida before jumping into league play. But FSU produced an 8-1 mark at the Donald L. Tucker Center, including an upset of No. 3 Louisville. The road record was just 2-6, and the Seminoles will have to get used to playing away from the comfort of home in March.
FSU will play in the ACC tournament quarterfinals in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday at 2:30 p.m. against Syracuse, which defeated Boston College on Thursday afternoon (televised on regional sports networks, full list here). Despite all of the postponements and replacing three big pieces of the roster, as well as Wyckoff taking over as interim as Sue Semrau helps take care of her mom, the Seminoles are in position to reach the NCAA Tournament. Picked to finish eighth in the ACC’s preseason poll, FSU secured fourth after a victory over Wake in the regular-season finale on Sunday.
“It was crazy,” Jones said. “But I definitely think that those hard games, those hard times really groomed us to be the team that we are now, finishing fourth in ACC. … We definitely grew as a team together, going through those hard times and just sticking with it because we could easily have given up and said, ‘Forget it. Next season.’ We stayed true to ourselves and we stuck to our vision.”
Jones’ vision is to take pieces of her game and improve. She’s the team’s top scorer, rebounder and defender. But she also sees room to improve, refining her 3-point shot (she’s only 2 of 3 from beyond the arc this season) and work on driving to the basket left-handed.
“She’s so gifted at being able to get to spots that maybe other people can’t get to as easily,” Wyckoff said. “She doesn’t settle for 3s. But I know she wants to shoot them. Every player does. Everybody wants to be able to be more versatile. She continues to develop her left hand just to be able to be as dominant of an attacker and finisher with her left as she is with her right.”
Jones has gone from a steady, dependable role player and taken as big a leap in one year as any recent player in the FSU women’s basketball program. Wyckoff has seen the growth firsthand, including Jones’ determination to improve as a defender, to show that she was more than just using “that natural ability with her length and her speed and athleticism.”
Being recognized by the coaches for her defense this week wasn’t lost on Jones. It was one of the first elements of her game that coaches recognized as a strength early in her career. Confidence on defense, as well as blocks and steals, have sparked Jones’ offensive productivity.
“When I wasn’t scoring freshman year I knew that defense would keep me on the court,” Jones said. “That was Coach Sue’s thing – if you can defend you will play so I made it apparent what I had to do on defense and letting the offense come to me later. And eventually it did. Which is crazy to think about. Taking it little by little every year, just specializing in something and it translating into other things. I think my offense stems from my defense. And I think that’s really where my game is at.”