Romero finds right fit at Florida State

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Leticia Romero just had a double-double in helping Florida State beat in-state rival Miami, sending the Seminoles into the ACC tournament with big smiles and legitimate title hopes.

Then before the trip home to Tallahassee, Romero was asked about the whirlwind of disappointment, frustration, pleasant surprises and -- ultimately -- happiness that the past 12 months have been for her.

"There was a point last year when I was like, 'Everything is dark for me. I don't know what I'm going to do,'" Romero said. "I thought I might be going to a junior college. I didn't know where. Everything just seemed so bad."

Contrast that to where she is now, a starting guard for the No. 7 Seminoles (27-3), who are the second seed in the ACC tournament this week in Greensboro, North Carolina. Romero is averaging 10.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists. She had a triple-double (19, 11, 11) on Feb. 22.

"It's so exciting to be with this team," said Romero, who has started 10 of her 17 games and is shooting 51.3 percent from the field. "We know we need to keep getting better, and that's our mindset. The energy, that feeling of coming to practice every day and if you are down, the team is going to come to you and lift you up -- it's just great for me."

Last spring, Romero became a cause célèbre in the debate about student-athlete rights, athletic department power and politics, and the NCAA's role in all of it.

Romero, who's from Spain's Canary Islands, went to Kansas State in 2013 because of the comfort level she felt with the coaching staff. When coach Deb Patterson was fired after the Wildcats' season-ending loss in March 2014 -- her assistants also left the program -- Romero felt ill at ease staying and requested to transfer. Kansas State's initial refusal to give Romero her release became a national story.

At age 18, Romero was baffled by a bureaucratic process that seemed on the hostile side of indifferent to her best interests. When Kansas State relented in May -- the first pleasant surprise of 2014 for Romero -- she had a second chance at making a college decision, and she now was much more well-informed.

For one thing, her English had dramatically improved while she was in the United States. But she also came to better understand the college athletic system, as a whole, and women's basketball in the United States, specifically.

The first time through the recruiting process, so much of it from the distance of her hometown of Las Palmas, she was just seeking a place she would feel taken care of and safe. Understandable for a teenager preparing to go thousands of miles from home for four years to a new country with a different language.

"I think the second time around, I was looking for some different things," Romero said as far as various styles of play among teams and conferences. "I felt more confident about myself."

Florida State was one of the places Romero had visited the first time around. When Seminoles coach Sue Semrau called after Romero got her release from K-State, the re-connection clicked immediately.

"She was like, 'Hey, Leti!' and it was just so friendly," Romero said. "Like we had known each other for a long time. I love how she coaches. She tries to understand the players. You can talk to her anytime about anything."

But Semrau also has worked hard to build the Florida State program over the past two decades, so Romero knew there were high expectations in Tallahassee. She prepared to become a diligent part of the scout team to help the Seminoles as she sat out the year required of a transfer.

Semrau told her that Florida State would petition to see if she could get eligibility this season, considering the situation Romero had been through at K-State.

"But she said the possibilities were really low," Romero said. "So I never thought I was going to play this season."

Romero had plenty to keep her occupied during the summer, though. In July in Italy, she played on the Spanish team that took second place at the FIBA Europe Under-20 Championship for women. Romero had nine points, 11 rebounds and six assists in an overtime loss to France in the final.

Then came the second pleasant surprise of 2014 for Romero: She was selected for Spain's senior national team, which took the silver medal at the world championship in Turkey last fall. Then 19, Romero was the youngest on the squad and soaked up all the wisdom and advice offered from the staff and older players, which included former Florida State guard Leonor Rodriguez.

"I never thought I would make the team; I thought they just wanted to see me for the future," Romero said of going to the senior-team training camp in August. "But the coach told me, 'Hey, you've got a chance. Work for it.'

"I didn't have many minutes; I barely played. But just to be there was great. The point guards that we have are very good. I learned a lot from them on and off the court."

There was a third pleasant surprise on the way, though. That came in December, when Romero was back home for a brief vacation during Christmas break. She couldn't travel with Florida State then as she was still in redshirt mode as a transfer. So when the Seminoles went to New Orleans to face Tulane for a Dec. 22 game, Romero went to the Canary Islands.

"We were on the bus on the way to the game at Tulane when I got the call," Semrau said of receiving the news that the NCAA had granted Romero eligibility to play this season.

Romero watched the game on her computer, and then went to bed, as it was about 3 a.m. in Las Palmas. She woke up to find a text message from Semrau.

"She said, 'I have great news for you, so call me whenever you wake up,'" Romero said. "But by then, it was like 5 a.m. in the United States, so I waited until I thought she'd wake up. Then we talked, and it was a big, nice surprise.

"I remember on the flight [to Las Palmas], I was like, 'Oh, I'm only going to have four days at home.' You know, when you don't play, it's like I wished I could be home longer. Then when she told me, I was like, 'I want to go back right now!' I was so happy."

So were the rest of her teammates. They had seen what Romero could do by practicing against her.

"Everybody was so excited," senior guard Maegan Conwright said. "We knew she could play right away and have a big impact on our team."

Romero had one day of practice as an active player before her first game, a 73-46 victory over Jacksonville on Dec. 29 in which she came off the bench for six points, six rebounds and six assists. The next game brought a steep jump in competition: at ACC favorite Notre Dame on Jan. 2. The Seminoles were still unranked then, but that would change pretty soon after they lost a 74-68 battle against the Irish in which Romero scored 15 points.

The Seminoles debuted at No. 20 in the Jan. 12 Associated Press poll. Their only subsequent loss was at North Carolina on Feb. 12. Their 27 victories are the most the Seminoles have ever had in the regular season. Now, they go to Greensboro trying to make the ACC final for the first time in program history, which could mean a rematch with now-No. 2 ranked Notre Dame.

While Semrau definitely wasn't expecting that Romero would be eligible this season, she hasn't been surprised at how well the 5-foot-8 sophomore has performed.

"What she did with our scout team on the court, and then by building relationships with everyone, she was very well-received by her teammates," Semrau said. "They knew how good she was."

What Romero has shown so far is not just the scoring and passing that she previously excelled at, but also the ability to rebound from the guard spot. Her game is continuing to grow. Her second chance seems like a perfect fit.

"With how I felt [last spring], it is amazing," Romero said. "Having that opportunity with the national team, and then getting to come to Florida State, where everybody was so welcoming ... and then getting the news that I could play this season. I feel really blessed and thankful."